Don’t bother revising – try sabotage instead

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East Anglian Daily Times, 5th March 2014

If you’ve seen or read the The Hunger Games, you’ll be familiar with the idea of teenagers engaged in a fiercely war-like environment, barely sleeping, wanting only to survive, locked in inevitable conflict and living right on the suffocating edge of human existence. To falter is to die – failure to perform will lead to loss of the Games and, potentially, of life.

If, on the other hand, you haven’t seen or read The Hunger Games, just pop your head around the door of a classroom over the next few weeks and you’ll get the idea. For those not connected to education, or those who have simply become refugees in the real world after fleeing the system at last – it’s exam season. Every year, of course, you’ll hear the same old rhetoric about the pressure on students and the injustice of the tribulations of the examination room. I suspect you’re also rather bored of it, so to skirt around the hoards of sobbing students: I have a bit of honest clarification for you.

It’s easy to think of exams as a bit like the all-too-familiar plastic school ruler. You bring in your subject knowledge, you measure it with the exam ruler, you find out your grade. The ruler is always the same. In the real world, of course, that’s not quite how it is – and there are two reasons why. First, it’s impossible to write an exam paper every year which has exactly the same difficulty as previous papers, unless you give out the same one. Secondly, students on the whole are getting better at their subjects (or better at taking exams), or so says all of the data coming from the exam regulators and from Gove.  

The way we combat this age-old dilemma is through the behind-the-scenes shifting of grade boundaries, which allows exam boards to confirm the difficulty of the paper after the students have sat it. Rather conveniently, thousands of students sitting an exam is a good way to measure how hard it is, so a proportion of the students will get an A, a proportion a B, and so on. This, you’ll have realised, will mean the top proportion will get an A*, regardless of how well they did in terms of marks. 

This is why GCSEs and A levels aren’t a measurement against a set standard every year (like a ruler), they are inherently a comparative measure of students’ achievements. An A* GCSE result doesn’t mean ‘I know how to get 90/100 on a test paper’, it means ‘I am better than 90% of the other people who took this exam’. What the system does is put students in an arena with thousands of others and asks them engage in intellectual mortal combat – the examination Hunger Games.

That’s why I think the exam system is unfair. Because the students in every exam ‘arena’each year are getting better – which is a good thing. But the number of allocated A grades isn’t getting any higher, which means you have to be better and better to get a higher grade. Students are being punished for being better – or at least for having superior teaching.

So given that grades should be getting higher, but we’re stopping them (which is unfair on students), if we want to clamber back up the international league tables, as The Government wants us to, why don’t we want the number of A grades to increase? The dreaded ‘grade inflation’ – wailed about in the papers every year – is a successful result, not a cheapening of standards. More A grades are good, because they show improvement. Despite that, there isn’t a ruler so we only measure students against each other, which just isn’t fair. Why should the same student in 2006 get a higher grade than in 2014, just because of the other people in the exam room? In the case of the English fiasco two years ago, it could have been identical students six months apart that had different outcomes on results day. That’s what the comparison does. 

Grades can now be moved around so whimsically, it’s trends and statistics and graphs that matter – not students. It seems that when the government is given the choice between rewarding students for A grade standard work, and suppressing the trend of improvement they choose the latter. I’m more than a score on a results form, and I deserve more than to be marked down because the education system has actually been very effective.  It doesn’t make sense that we should be pushing so hard to make education better, then be surprised when people do better. 

When I go to a job interview in twenty years time, my prospective employer will be comparing me to the other candidates. That’s fair, that’s normal. But one of the comparisons they’ll draw will use my exam results. How can it be fair to me or that employer if both sets of results have been compromised by a wider comparison? The only way I’ll be judged effectively is if the other candidates were in my school year, because my grades could have been different if I had been born two months later. It’s clear that when you apply a real-world example to exam policy, there’s no sensible rationale behind it. 

With that in mind if you’re donning your flak jacket for the exam arena this year, then prepare well, as I will. But it seems to me – from the message our exams send us – that the most logical thing to do would be to sabotage my friends’ revision to make myself comparatively better. It’s not just my score that makes a difference, it’s theirs – so maybe I’ll be poisoning the school dinners from now on. 

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