Students ‘penalised for good answers’ in language exams

The Times, 29/08/14, Nicola Woolcock reports on claims the highest-achieving girls at a top independent school were marked down in this summer’s language GCSEs. The inaccurate marking could herald problems for new GCSEs being introduced by the government next year. Fiona Boulton, headmistress of Guildford High School is quoted.

Fiona Boulton, headmistress of Guildford High School, and Jon Coles, a former director-general for education standards at the Department for Education, conducted the first-ever direct comparison of GCSEs with International GCSEs.

They found that the brightest girls did better at the iGCSE because the GCSE penalised their responses to extended-answer questions, which are meant to give outstanding candidates a chance to shine. Less outstanding candidates did better at these GCSE questions by giving more formulaic answers that examiners could recognise.

The prestigious school, at which almost 73 per cent of GCSE entries this summer were graded A*, is part of United Learning, a chain of schools of which Mr Coles is chief executive.

He said the results did not bode well for the new GCSEs, revamped on the orders of Michael Gove and being introduced in September 2015. Of the marking of papers Mr Coles said: “It came out with the wrong rank order in quite a significant way. In GCSE the marking seems to be unreliable for longer-answer questions. There are some really interesting lessons here for GCSE reform — there’s an awful lot of expectation that there will be more longer-answer questions [in the new exams]. That’s only going to work if something can be done about the quality of marking.”

At the school, rated sixth in The Times GCSE results table, 138 girls sat dual sets of exams in French, German and Spanish this summer. Against expectations they did better in iGCSEs than in GCSEs, suggesting GCSEs are harder.

When school leaders analysed the results, however, they found their brightest teenagers were the ones who had missed the top grades in GCSE. Twenty seven candidates who achieved an A* in the iGCSE were awarded an A grade in GCSE. This compared with five candidates scoring an A* in the GCSE and an A grade in iGCSE.

Mrs Boulton said: “When we drilled down into the issue, the marking of the controlled assessment paper was erratic at best . . . In the iGCSE, which has more grammar content, they were scoring between 92 and 100 per cent, in the GCSE it was 72 to 80 per cent.”

The iGCSE better rewarded the fluent writing of the most able girls, Mrs Boulton said, while in the GCSE, weaker candidates wrote “more basic sentences that matched the mark scheme so were picking up marks. The idiosyncrasies of language aren’t being rewarded.”

Mr Coles added: “It looked like the iGCSE was easier, but I suspect it’s more accurate. If the GCSE is going to have more extended writing in it, it raises questions about more turbulence.”

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