Thursday, December 08, 2011

Exam cheats

It seems to be the week for "well duh!" revelations. Lobbyists boasting about their political connections and showing no scruples over who they work for! Say it ain't so. Then we get to exam cheating - can I call it that? Let's say extreme exam guidance wherein some who work for the private companies that create exams brief the teachers of those subjects on the topics that will arise.

These are businesses whose function it is to make money, serving clients who are ranked by the government by how well they perform on the tests issued by these companies. It's no wonder that some schools will pay these companies extra money to get a leg-up on the competition and it's no wonder that some companies would accept the money. This is simply a logical consequence of the business they're in.

Now in this context it's frowned upon because the exam setters are supposed to be unbiased - except of course they're not - again their function is to make money and they're in competition against others. So if they can 'help' the teachers to get their pupils to pass their tests the schools will continue to pay them. If they 'align' their tests to make them easier or more comprehensible to the pupils the schools will continue to pay for them.

Given that the tests that they produce and that the schools administer are supposed to act as an aid to both higher education and businesses it's monitored by Ofqual. So they're the ones who let these seminars exist, except did they have any power over them in the first place? Does it fall under the purview of "maintaining standards" one would expect it to, which suggests they weren't performing their function correctly.

However all this is likely to do is result in a shake-up of the exam writers etc. perhaps an examination of the exam system is really in order? It is already the case that some universities are ignoring results over personal interviews so perhaps the question of why do we have exams in the first place.

Pre state education in order to pass a student had to demonstrate to the masters that they knew the subject; the masters asked the questions and the pupil responded - in essence the same situation as to the verbal portion of foreign language exams and similar to thesis writing in universities.

With the advent of mass education this one-to-one approach would be unwieldy and therefore the masters wrote down the questions to be presented to the pupils. In order to standardise between educational facilities and remove bias the question writing was outsourced away from an individual school. As (in theory) all states schools were alike and everyone took the same exams it was thus possible to rank schools by their academic achievement.

The situation today is that we have several exam writers and the schools can receive vastly different budgets; yet schools are still being assessed by the same methods. All that leaves is the fundamental point of exams - to test whether a pupil is competent within that subject. Except we can't judge that fairly because the method being used has a bias towards wanting high results from both the testers, the administrators and the pupils.

So do we still need exams? Perhaps, but not in the way they're currently being administered. Many schools already use continuous assessment and these are overseen independently to stop the teachers awarded higher marks than they should - mini-exams covering just that part of the syllabus; with a larger comprehensive exam at the end of each term.

Essentially chop it down into bite-sized chunks that allow the pupils to easily digest the material and repeat tests to ensure retention. Yes in some ways it means more work and cheating can be introduced by having one school do one sections test before another school, but spreading it over time and introducing spot checks should make cheating harder while at the same time putting these back firmly to the task they should be doing - educating the children of this country.