Should UK pupils be assessed to international standards?
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Should UK pupils be assessed to international standards?

UK Education Secretary Michael Gove’s latest educational reform comes as little surprise after he asked for a review of GCSE exams back in March last year. Ofqual, the UK exam watchdog agency, launched a public consultation last week on reforms proposing to assess British students against international standards.

The new system would see tougher GCSEs and a numbered scale to replace the current lettered grades. The 12-week consultation runs until June 30, but reactions from professionals have been mixed. The debate on whether exams are getting easier is an ongoing one, and certainly one that Gove has used as his Trojan horse for educational reforms. Ofqual has proposed to align the new grade 4 to the old grade C, with 9 being the highest grade. The idea of making 5, the pass mark, international benchmarked against the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) tests, has been widely criticised.

The Pisa tests
The Pisa tests are run by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and are taken by 15-year-olds in selected countries to give a general picture of their abilities. Pisa assesses students in mathematics, reading and science, but does not test their knowledge of a particular curriculum, meaning schools do not teach in preparation of Pisa – rather, they assess the intellectual and analytical level pupils are at when they approach the end of education.

The OECD stresses the tests don’t require student preparation. GCSEs, on the other hand, test pupils’ knowledge on a specific curriculum they have studied over the year: English, Maths, Science etc. Hence for many, the two exams are not comparable.

Some professionals have criticised Pisa tests, arguing it is impossible to draw conclusions about a country’s education system from the results of these tests. The last results showed England fall out of the top 20 and behind Asian countries, although China only entered two of its jurisdictions, Hong Kong and Shanghai, which do not provide a representative sample of the country’s students. Many agree Pisa’s flawed evaluation system makes it impossible to capture a country’s entire education, and argue it is highly irresponsible to base reform on them. William Stewart puts it well in this article.

The UK’s education system was ranked sixth best in the develop world in a league table which also considered other data such as graduation rates, showing a completely different picture to the very narrow view given by the Pisa tests.

So should Gove push for reform?

A much needed change
Siôn Humphreys, policy advisor at the National Association of Head Teachers, welcomed the proposal for a national reference test and the consultation into reforming GCSEs, which he says have needed fixing for a long time. Humphreys conceded, however, that the consultation period would not leave much time for Ofqual to come up with recommendations ready to implement by September 2015.

An unnecessary and risky proposal
The largest teachers’ union, NASUWT, expressed concern at what they described as ‘further confusion’ for parents, teachers and pupils. Chris Keates, General Secretary of teacher’s union NASUWT, said the announcement was in line with the Government’s consistent portrayal of GCSEs as ‘broken’ and ‘dumbed down’, and criticized the idea to compare the results of pupils in England with those of pupils in China.

Keates said:  “The move to align GCSE gradings to PISA ignores the fact that the two systems are designed for very different purposes. This is yet another example of the Coalition Government playing fast and loose with international data for political purposes.

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Read more about the latest PISA results which set pupils in the West far behind those in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Singapore.