18 Jun 2011

I don't think Gove 'gets' GCSEs

The Coalition's Education secretary, Michael Gove, has recently given an interview to the Times in which he bashes GCSEs for being too easy and a bit crap (my words, not his). Due to the pay-wall I haven't read the interview in the Times, but the Guardian has got some of the stuff he said on their site.

He's said some, erm, interesting things, unfortunately they're almost all wrong and boil down to “things were better in my day” conservatism, but I'm going to focus more on the 'wrong' bit since I don't know what things were like back in Gove's day. I happen to be studying GCSEs (I'm in Year 10 in the state education system) at this moment, so I think I'm qualified to say if they're actually hard or not. Let's see what he said (in italics, my commentary will be underneath every sentence or so in crimson)

(NB: I've omitted t start of the article since it isn't the part I'm focusing on. I'm also relying on a probably biased source since, y'know, pay-wall.)

"It has become easier to get an A at A-level or GCSE than it used to be, and that's a problem

A. More people achieving something is not indicative that it's getting any easier to do it, chances are there are other factors behind the rise in As. As far as I know, the percentage of possible marks gained is how grade boundaries are determined (although I will concede that some questions may have their values reduced according to the percentage of people which could answer the question (I'm not certain how this would work but I am hoping it will happen with the astonishingly badly worded AQA GCSE Humanities exams I took earlier this year ("Describe 2 agents of Primary socialisation" Primary really? (the family counts as a single agency of socialisation as far as I know))), so I'm going to guess that your argument is that exams are getting easier.

Which is weird because I don't think they are, for my year group, at least, think they've actually gotten harder (but this may be due to the “things were worse in my day” effect). Incidentally, if anyone reading this can tell me what AQA meant by any of the 12 mark questions in the exams mentioned earlier I'd be very grateful.
[EDIT: Never mind, I did really well in it. God only knows how, turns out I'm really good at coming up with clever-sounding stuff (and they probably ignored the second bit of the answer of the primary source question since it made no sense). Way to undermine my own point...]

“… If you are doing art or geography, you've got to have a work of art or a field trip. But if you're doing mathematics or English or French then the logical thing is to have a proper rigorous exam at the end of year 11”

The ellipses at the start of this bit does indicate that the Graun missed out a bit, which could have helped people reading it know what he meant by this, but I'm not certain Gove knows what we actually study in GCSE (WJEC) Geography (I'm not certain we can go on a field trip to, say, an urban area in an LEDC, or even an MEDC since we live near one making it pretty pointless,likewise with rural areas, and here's the small matter of getting funding for these field trips, since they're trying to make 'savings' (cuts)). Also, going off what context the Guardian has given for this quote, we should be marked... based off a field trip? Seriously? WJEC Geography is examined in the very way the Tories advocate (actually, I think there's an 8 hour controlled assessment, but that's probably one of the ones which is a weird hybrid between exams and coursework (1st part probably coursework, 2nd part exams) in a classroom since 8 hours is too long for a standard exam).

Also, I don't think that a single rigorous exam at the end of year 11 is the fully logical conclusion for assessing maths, English or French, especially not for French. I suppose there is a logic behind the maths one, but it should probably be split in two as to allow assessments of mental mathematic capability (calculators aren't that ubiquitous, and I imagine it'd be a pain to have to get your calculator out for everything (plus, I kind of find mental maths fun) and more comprehensive assessment of techniques... I sounded like a Tory there, didn't I? Moving on, there is the small matter of English and French being languages which are both spoken and written in practical applications. A single exam simply wouldn't be a suitable medium for assessing both these things. This not even getting into comprehension and (in English more so than French since it's the lingua franca of this country) analysis.

Also, exams are stressful enough as is, and it's human nature to goof off and procrastinate until something important is staring you in the face (I think, this is armchair psychology at best though), guess what modular exams do! Seriously, those things are bloody stressful...Also, I could've sworn Tories were against 'teaching to the test' (I read the Daily Mail for 2 years, I know this stuff), how does this tie in with that at all?

The Guardian then reports that Gove said there had been previous attempts to make science relevant, by linking it to contemporary concerns such as climate change or food scares. But he said: "What [students] need is a rooting in the basic scientific principles, Newton's laws of thermodynamics and Boyle's law."”

First things first, Newton most certainly did not come up with the laws of thermodynamics. Secondly, linking stuff to contemporary issues? I'm not an expert, but it provides a practical case study which shows the application of... basic scientific principles (kind of).

Actually, I don't think I'm qualified to comment on this, since I've only got up to year 10 science to go off, and I don't know what the Year 11 syllabus involves (beyond the stuff for Biology Unit 3, but I think that, for Gove, biology doesn't really count as a science (to be fair, it is a pretty boring one IMO, physics is more interesting since it's mathematically based)), but I know that f=ma (Newton's 2nd law of motion) and p=Vk is on there (there's a few other equations I don't recognise on the walls of one of my science classrooms, and I'd be willing to bet that us not learning them is what he is complaining about)

This said “Cold stuff does not make hot stuff hotter”(which is what the 2nd law of thermodynamics boils down to) is pretty much common sense, and Newton's 3rd law is also a common saying (“for each and every action, there is an equal and opposite re-action”).

His daughter did not understand the way history was taught, Gove said, because it was not chronological: "My daughter does toys through the ages, then she does the Vikings, then the Greeks; and she gets confused."”

I don't think basing the education system (which I think this interview may well have generally been about, not just GCSEs and A-levels being too easy <glares at The Guardian>) off any one person is a good idea, and I'm not certain that history not being taught chronologically is the problem, but I suppose it's unfair to assume that Gove's wrong about his daughter's needs. I can't see how it's confusing as long as the time transitions are explained properly though (but this could just be me). I think in this case, it comes down to what time periods are suitable. E.G. The details of the Roman era aren't suitable for kids really (Gove, as a Tory, should probably be able to get behind this aspect of it).

He added: "We are now seeing with the new exams regulator how we can make GCSEs tougher. Exam boards need to sharpen up their act. We are also saying in GCSEs that you need to award marks for spelling, punctuation and grammar. We need to have stretching exams which compare with the world's most rigorous."

A. We're already marked on spelling, punctuation and grammar! (“Quality of written communication”) Heck, that's what the marks for French consist of! This being despite it making GCSEs biased against people with dyslexia. 

B. Why do we? The improvement in GCSE results could be due to any number of factors other than the stuff about “dumbing down”, like better teaching. Also, we're talking about general exams for 14-16 year olds for the most part. Having exam's which “compare with the world's most rigorous” (at God knows what level) probably isn't suitable for this purpose (especially since they are mostly compulsory). It's a general exam. Due to the nature of it almost everyone should be passing.

Having a 69.1% pass rate (A*-C, which is all employers care about anyway, and what passes for a pass in the BBC reportage, I actually couldn't get any information for A*-G) isn't too high. Especially considering that this is just for GCSEs (I think, trying to find information on this stuff makes my head hurt) and probably skewed towards the people who get high numbers of passes (and probably take more exams). I'm not even going to try to tell you what the rate for the 5 A*-C GCSE or equivalent baseline is - really, information on this is impossible to get, the best I've got is 35% from The Daily Mail of all places, and they're reporting that Gove's complaining because it's too... low, um yeah, not sure how that works, but going off this 5 A*-C rate is a bit crap. If anything, it kind of totally renders Gove's point irrelevant. It does raise the question of why it's so bad, but that's a whole other blog post.  EDIT: Tried to track down the article, turns out I misread it. Considering this has over 350 views, that's slightly worrying. As an aside, yeah, this shit's impossible to track down. I was right!.

Like the omitted start of the article, most of the remainder of what Gove has to say involves his stance on the academies thing and the like (which is probably a whole other other blog post), but The Guardian leaves us with this:

The education secretary also thinks that, in A-levels, state schools are suffering at the expense of private schools, which are opting for a more traditional-style exam, the Pre-U.
He said: "If private schools are having an elite qualification and state schools are being left with a qualification that can't match it, that is of profound concern to me, so we do need to do something to strengthen confidence in A-levels."

And I have to say I have a little suggestion for him (and the rest of the Government, going off his use of the plural 1st person): STOP UNDERMINING THEM!!!! Really, you can't say you're surprised that employers and universities have no confidence in them when you spend the rest of the time going on about how they're useless. It. Doesn't. Work. That. Way.

The article quoted throughout this can be found here on The Guardian's site and was written by Jonathan Paige. 

EDIT: Have fixed the font, credit goes to @IdioticInuit for pointing this out. Also added tags. 

EDIT: Updated to boast about my marks in the Humanities exam I mentioned and to try to rework a paragraph since I apparently borked the grammar on it, or I accidentally used the selecty-draggy-texty thing when making said edit and borked it up that way. I'm not sure. 
EDIT: Finally capitalised "Times" in its second instance, and realised an epic mistake I made. Which no one picked up on, but still...