What does it mean to fail an exam? With the final plans for changes to GCSE’s announced this week there has been plenty of discussion about academic standards and what these changes will mean for children. Given that the general perception is that the changes will make GCSE’s tougher much of the focus has been on those children who might not meet these more demanding standards. This is perfectly sensible. Running through many of these comments, however, is a belief that makes me feel uneasy, namely that raising standards inevitably involves passing judgment on student’s and consigning many of them to disappointment and failure.
Here are three examples of what I’m talking about. First up is Geoff Barton writing in the TES (my emphasis):
What I would really welcome is an examination system that’s not predicated on how many children ‘fail’ to gain certain grades – the loathsome, divisive, all-encompassing C/D borderline that leaves so many students thinking they are rubbish.
Much more acceptable would be the notion that a grade one indicates a basic grasp of functional literacy and numeracy – an achievement not then sneered at or dismissed. At the end of eleven years of compulsory schooling, we really must develop a national mindset that recognizes young people’s achievement at the full range of levels.
Hugh Muir struck a similar note in the Guardian:
With the announcement of yet another new regime for GCSEs – a new grading system for English and Maths, the move away from modular testing, coursework, tiering and the future reliance on an O-level style eggs-in-one basket summer examination – the education secretary sets himself against second chances for 16-year-olds. He seems more interested in the tougher GCSE as a nervewracking penalty shoot out. One false move and that’s that.
And Mary Bousted from the ATL argued that:
Given that currently 40% of 16-year-olds do not pass both English and maths at A* – C, it is likely with fewer students will pass GCSEs with the proposed new numeric grading structure, as grade boundaries will be recalibrated upwards. This will demoralise students and teachers alike.
The common message is that setting expected standards that many students will not meet is equivalent to telling them that they are not good enough and destroying their future prospects (‘one false move and that’s that’). At its core is a mistaken understanding of what it means to fail in education. These criticisms all implicitly assume that failing an exam is a kind of moral failure, so that falling below a threshold is somehow a reflection of your worth as a person. This does not have to be the case at all. Exams should be nothing more than an assessment of your knowledge and understanding of a particular subject. As every teacher knows, the grades that you receive at the end of your education are unlikely to be a particularly good indication of the broader successes and failures of your time at school. This is not a problem with exams and qualifications – it simply illustrates that their purpose is not to offer value judgements but instead to provide an accurate picture of what students can and can’t do.
If what these criticisms are really trying to get at is that in our culture and attitudes to education we attribute a wider significance than we should to failing an exam then they should make the case in those terms. By bundling the issues together they create an environment in which raising standards is inevitably associated with a whole host of negative consequences. This is incredibly damaging. We should be able to be ambitious about what children are expected to learn at school without adopting a pernicious conception of failure. In a world class education system children should be able to fail exams without being made to feel worthless.