Back to school #3

The start of a new term, one like no other.

Pupils return to school across England and Wales as Jeremy Hunt backs call for ‘rapid testing’ in classroomsLondon Evening Standard
[T]he former health secretary Jeremy Hunt backed a call from epidemiologist Professor Neil Ferguson for “rapid testing” to be introduced in schools, using a similar model to that used in Germany … “I think he is right, and the reason he is right is because we know something now we didn’t know back in January, which is that about 70 per cent of the people who transmit coronavirus don’t have any symptoms at all and so that makes it much harder to get public consent for things like sending people back to school or going back to offices and so on because it is a silent transmitter and even a silent killer sometimes. The way you get round that is by having very quick, very effective large-scale testing.”

Germany faces a ‘roller coaster’ as schools reopen amid coronavirusThe New York Times
Germany, like other countries that have managed the pandemic fairly well, was quick to deploy widespread testing, effective contact tracing and tests with rapid results. Crucially, that has helped keep the rate of community transmission low. So far, the lesson from Germany, Denmark and Norway, among the first countries to start the new school year, is that schools can reopen and remain open — if they build on that kind of foundation. But most countries, and most parts of the United States, simply can’t match those conditions.

This isn’t just a problem for schools, of course.

Fears over COVID-19 spread in universities as students set to make ‘UK’s biggest annual migration’Sky News
The start of a new university year is “the biggest migration of people on an annual basis in the UK,” Jo Grady, UCU general secretary, says. “That’s a million students, moving across country, cycling in and out of lockdown zones, of bubbles, of homes, into new cities, where we are not track and tracking those students, we are not testing those students,” she said. “We are seriously concerned that if the government and universities do not step in and discourage this… we could see universities becoming the care homes of the second wave of COVID-19.”

Fewer shots, more sanitiser: Manchester prepares for freshers week in the time of CovidThe Guardian
In university cities and towns across the country, students are set to encounter a transformed reality next month. The bustling student district of Fallowfield, which once had its raucous house parties debated in parliament, is one of many places that will have to trim its sails.

The area is home to Manchester University’s main accommodation block, and businesses are quietly gearing up for what is usually one of their busiest months, without quite knowing what the return of students will bring. Promoters would usually be dotted on street corners, attempting to lure twentysomethings with £1 shots. But now, when students arrive, they will be greeted by floor markings, hand sanitiser, and signs reminding them to keep socially distanced.

But maybe everything will be OK?

Why heading back to school isn’t as big a risk as it soundsWired UK
“What’s happened between June and now, is that we now know that young children, so those under ten, have negligible risk from the virus and don’t appear to be transmitting it much either,” says David Strain, clinical senior lecturer and honorary consultant at University of Exeter Medical School. “In June, we knew that the children could catch the virus, and they had no disease. But we didn’t know, at that point, whether they could then take that virus home and spread it on to their parents and grandparents.” One worry is that children will spread the virus to vulnerable members of their household – an elderly relative or shielder. But, luckily, children aren’t as contagious as adults. […]

What is clear is that children staying out of school is hugely damaging – not just in regards to the loss of education, but whether the children come from vulnerable settings, are neglected at home, or at risk of domestic violence. Schools provide a refuge for these children. “We’ve seen an entire generation lose six months worth of education – for some this is their formative years,” says Strain. “This is further driving health and educational inequalities.”

Time for a ‘Nightingale moment’ for England’s children, says watchdogThe Guardian
Invoking the gargantuan effort taken to build Nightingale hospitals for thousands of Covid patients in a matter of weeks, and the £35bn furlough scheme to save jobs, Anne Longfield said children’s recovery from missing months of school would take up to a year and would have a profound psychological impact. […]

“The government needs to be bold, and on the sort of scale that saw hospitals built in weeks, and workers paid in furlough, to make sure no child is left behind. If not, they risk losing a generation for good. The stakes are simply that high,” she said.

Any lessons from history?

Schools beat earlier plagues with outdoor classes. We should, tooThe New York Times
The subsequent New England winter was especially unforgiving, but children stayed warm in wearable blankets known as “Eskimo sitting bags” and with heated soapstones placed at their feet. The experiment was a success by nearly every measure — none of the children got sick. Within two years there were 65 open-air schools around the country either set up along the lines of the Providence model or simply held outside. In New York, the private school Horace Mann conducted classes on the roof; another school in the city took shape on an abandoned ferry.

Distressingly, little of this sort of ingenuity has greeted the effort to reopen schools amid the current public-health crisis.

A classroom on a ferry in New York City, circa 1915.

If schools do have to close again, we’ll be better prepared next time, right?

Coronavirus: how can teachers prepare better for remote learning?Tes
The principle of generative learning is that there are activities that we can ask pupils to do in which they create new learning for themselves. All these activities involve pupils taking new information from a source – such as teacher explanation, a written text, video clip etc – and then going through the process of: selecting relevant information; organising it; integrating it into their prior knowledge.

There’s a mountain to climb, even without any further closures.

Pupils three months behind as new term starts, study claimsSchools Week
The research has prompted warnings that catch-up must not be seen as a “quick-turnaround solution”, with schools facing a “range of barriers” as they reopen. The survey also found that almost half of pupils need “intensive catch-up support”, with those from the most deprived schools and institutions with the highest proportion of pupils from BAME backgrounds “in greatest need”.

Next year’s exam season will be rolling around before you know it.

GCSEs and A-levels: Decision on exam delay promised ‘very soon’BBC News
This is expected to be part of a wider strategy on how next summer’s exams will operate when so much school has been missed because of the pandemic.

3 ways to avoid repeating the exam grade fiascoTes
Teachers are calling for reduced exam content and a new national system for moderating grades to avoid a repeat of this year’s exam grade controversy.

Perhaps some people need to go back to school more than others.

Ofqual chief Sally Collier steps down after exams chaosBBC News
“This move follows the failure of the statistical model that led to this year’s grading fiasco, but the fault is not hers alone,” said the head of the Association of School and College Leaders, Geoff Barton. “Ministers have questions to answer over the extent to which they scrutinised and challenged the methodology and reliability of the statistical model, particularly given the enormity of the task and the importance of getting it right.”

Everything that went wrong with the botched A-Levels algorithmWired UK
“This whole story has really highlighted the problems that there are around automated decision making, in particular when it’s deployed by the public sector,” says Tennison. “This has hit the headlines, because it affects so many people across the country, and it affects people who have a voice. There’s other automated decision making that goes on all the time, around benefits, for example, that affect lots of people who don’t have this strong voice.”

Can algorithms ever make the grade?Ada Lovelace Institute
Hindsight delivers 20:20 vision, as we know. But Ofqual should have been aware that it was deploying an algorithm against a backdrop of existing public scepticism towards algorithmic systems, and an environment of tenuous trust in Government data use. It needed not only to meet, but to exceed existing standards for transparency and accountability, to avoid doing indelible harm to public confidence in data-driven decision making. […]

It would be easy to blame Ofqual here, but the choice of goals – in algorithms as in policy more broadly – is a political question, not just a technical one. Professor Jo-Anne Baird, a member of Ofqual’s Standing Advisory Group, has publicly stated that Ofqual was specifically directed to deliver exam results that controlled grade inflation, and within those parameters, this algorithm is the best you can get. So why did the public have to wait until results day in August to find out that this was the goal?

The lessons we all must learn from the A-levels algorithm debacleWired UK
The statistical problems within the algorithm – such as the ability to only award a certain number of each grade per school – could have been spotted before it was deployed. But external expert advice was ignored months before results day. Members of the Royal Statistical Society (RSS) offered to help Ofqual in April, but faced five-year non-disclosure agreements if they wanted to be involved in the project. The RSS experts said they believed some of the issues with the algorithm could have been avoided if independent expert advice was taken.

How might Ofqual have avoided this turmoil?HEPI
Ofqual were set a nearly impossible task: Provide students with the grades that they would most likely have achieved had they sat their exams, while maintaining overall national standards for prior years, and protecting groups from being systematically advantaged or disadvantaged. The methodology arguably failed on all three aims. The situation we’re left with is in many ways worse. But could this all have been avoided had the methodology been better designed and communicated?

Ironic really, the DfE’s failure to learn lessons

School exams and Covid: what could the UK have learned from EU?The Guardian
The French education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, announced in April that the country’s 740,000 final-year students would be awarded an average grade for each subject based on coursework and tests during the first two terms. Local juries assessed and – if necessary – adjusted students’ grades according to national averages and on schools’ past examination records. The pass rate for the 2020 bac was over 95%, more than seven percentage points higher than the previous year, forcing the government last month to create about 10,000 extra university places for September in the most popular subject areas.

Update 17/08/2020

So it seems lessons can be learnt.

A-level and GCSE results in England to be based on teacher assessments in U-turnThe Guardian
The climbdown comes after days of turmoil triggered by the publication of A-level results last Thursday, when almost 40% of predicted results were downgraded, with some students marked down two or even three grades, which resulted in many losing university places.

Update 20/08/2020

What could possibly go wrong?

Students get ‘bizarre’ rises from moderated gradesTes
A headteacher of a West Yorkshire school said that, in one case, a pupil forecast a grade 1 in a subject had been given an 8 after the Ofqual moderating process. He also had 12 students in the same subject where final grades were four grades higher than the centre assessed grades produced by the school.

An anxious wait

It’s A-level results day tomorrow. Now would not be a good time to introduce any last minute changes to the process, you would think, especially given that universities have already had the results since last Friday and have completed many of their admissions decisions. But this government has a reputation to uphold.

Triple lock for students ahead of A level and GCSE resultsGOV.UK
Students could accept their calculated grade, appeal to receive a valid mock result, or sit autumn exams to ensure the achievements of young people are recognised. Ofqual has been asked to determine how and when valid mock results can be used to calculate grades.

That’s no easy question for Ofqual to answer, given how varied the mock exam process can be across our schools.

Replacement A-level grades ‘no lower than mock exams’BBC News
But head teachers’ leader Geoff Barton was highly critical of this late change – and said the marking of mock exams was not consistent enough between schools to be used to decide A-level results. “The idea of introducing at the eleventh hour a system in which mock exam results trump calculated grades beggars belief,” said the leader of the ASCL heads teachers’ union. “The government doesn’t appear to understand how mock exams work. They aren’t a set of exams which all conform to the same standards. The clue is in the name ‘mock’,” said Mr Barton.

Something is needed, though. I can only imagine how much anguish for the students and extra work for the schools this is going to create.

A-level grade appeals in England will benefit only ‘small group’, says ministerThe Guardian
“Most people can rely on this standardisation model in delivering the right result,” said Gibb, stressing that without the computer-aided moderation, there would have been grade inflation of 12%. … He also confirmed that, as the Guardian reported last week, 40% of grades have been downgraded by the standardisation model.

Getting the students in order

Ofqual have set out how GCSEs and A levels will be awarded this summer, following the cancellation of this year’s exams. It’s not just about the students’ mock exam results, but nor is it just a grade they’re after.

How GCSEs, AS & A levels will be awarded in summer 2020GOV.UK
Exam boards will be contacting schools, colleges and other exam centres after Easter asking them to submit, by a deadline that will be no earlier than 29 May 2020, the following:

  • a centre assessment grade for every student in each of their subjects: that is, the grade they would be most likely to have achieved if they had sat their exams and completed any non-exam assessment. Judgements should balance different sources of evidence such as: classwork; bookwork; any participation in performances in subjects such as music, drama or PE; any non-exam assessment […]
  • the rank order of students within each grade for each subject – for example, for all those students with a centre assessment grade of 5 in GCSE maths, a rank order where 1 is the most secure/highest attaining student, and so on. This information will be used in the statistical standardisation of centres’ judgements – allowing fine tuning of the standard applied across all schools and colleges

That last point could be a non-trivial matter, to say the least, though you can see why they’re asking for it.

Coronavirus: Schools will rank GCSE and A-level pupils within gradesSchools Week
The rank order will help determine which pupils move between grades during the standardisation process, which will be run by the exam boards in order to ensure that pupils are not disadvantaged by generous or severe assessment.

But what about the other qualifications?

Exam regulator unveils GCSE and A-level plans for coronavirus crisisThe Guardian
The new system will affect around 1.5 million pupils studying for this year’s GCSEs, A-levels and AS-levels in England, as well as many in Wales. Details are still unclear for those taking BTec and vocational or technical qualifications at schools and colleges.

More to follow, then.

Trusting the teachers

The schools are closed and GCSEs and A-Levels are to be replaced with teacher assessments (partly). That might not sound very robust, but this research from 2019 (how timely!) suggests otherwise.

Don’t worry about cancelled exams – research shows we should switch to teacher assessment permanently – The Conversation
Teacher assessments during compulsory education are as reliable and stable as standardised exam scores. We can – and should – trust teacher assessments as indicators of pupils’ achievement. This advice is based on a study carried out with a UK-representative sample of more than 10,000 children. We hope that our findings will alleviate some of the concerns of the pupils and parents affected by the exam cancellation. […]

Might the “high financial, pedagogical and psychological costs of standardised exams” suggest that this is another area that’s permanently changed, once things go back to normal?

For these reasons, our results suggest that substituting high-stakes exams for teacher assessments might be a good thing, not just during the current Covid-19 crisis, but on a permanent basis.

We call for you to trust teachers during these difficult times. We should do whatever we can to bring joy back to the classroom – or, as it is now, the virtual classroom. We must trust our teachers to teach the curriculum and to assess students’ progress and abilities. The wellbeing of students, their parents and their teachers would benefit from it.

It’s not all about the money

This seems appropriate to share after yesterday’s post about late capitalism. Last year, the Augar report on university funding was published, which was roundly criticised at the time.

Universities condemn ‘catastrophic’ plan to link fees to graduate payThe Guardian
Dr Jason Scott-Warren, a lecturer in English at Cambridge University, says: “The idea of measuring the success of degrees by graduate earnings is despicable and we can only hope that future governments will abandon this market logic.”

It seems that concept of linking value of education to earnings is spreading to other areas. Anything that mentions Ofsted is usually trouble.

Alarm at Ofsted-style plan to rank universities by graduate earningsThe Guardian
In November the Conservative manifesto set off alarm bells in universities by promising to tackle “low-quality courses”. Now senior academics close to Westminster say the government is pressing on with this in a plan that could replicate the four Ofsted categories used for schools, flagging up university courses the government considers inadequate. […]

Controversially, graduate earnings are expected to be the bar by which the government will judge courses. Higher education experts warn this would damage the arts and humanities, where starting salaries are typically much lower than in disciplines such as medicine or law. […]

Prof Alec Cameron, vice-chancellor of Aston university, in Birmingham, says: “Salary is evidence of things, including where you live, what sector you’re in, and what sort of job you are pursuing. We should push back against the idea that a good salary is an adequate measure of how much a job matters to society.”

How can anyone think this is a good idea?

Could do better?

Politicians got a taste of their own medicine whilst they waited for the results of the PISA tests this year. The Programme for International Student Assessment is a way of measuring how effective countries’ education ministers are in improving education standards.

And this year’s results? For some, it was good news.

English school children are climbing the international league tables as rest of the UK lags behindThe Telegraph

Welsh PISA education stats show improvements but country still falling behind rest of UKPowys County Times

Pisa rankings: Irish teens among the best at reading in developed worldThe Irish Times

Keeping score: PISA results has Alberta top of the class in reading, scienceEdmonton Journal

For others, less so.

PISA 2018 test results show over 4 in 10 Romanian students don’t understand what they read; education minister not that worriedRomania Insider

‘It just isn’t working’: PISA test scores cast doubt on U.S. education effortsThe New York Times

PISA tests: Israeli students consistently behind developed worldThe Jerusalem Post

The PISA problem: ‘The rest of the world is moving away from us’The Sydney Morning Herald

So is there anything to learn from this?

After two decades of PISA tests, why haven’t scores risen more?The Economist
The hope at the turn of the millennium was that the wealth of new information would help identify what makes a school system tick, prompting others to follow their lead, and thus causing results to rise across the board. This is not quite how things have worked out. Despite the fact that spending per pupil in the OECD has risen by 15%, average performance in reading, maths and science remains essentially the same as when the tests started. Pick a country at random and it is just as likely to have regressed as improved.

could-do-better

As The Economist’s article goes on to say, “If a silver bullet for improving education existed it would have been discovered by now.”

A big problem is that many education ministers still pay too little attention to the evidence. Others are hemmed in by the fact they must listen to the views of teachers and parents, who do not always know best. Andreas Schleicher, head of education at the OECD, bemoans the fact that lots of countries have, for instance, prioritised shrinking classes over hiring and training excellent teachers, despite evidence suggesting this is a bad idea. As he points out, one place that has given the quality of the teacher priority over the size of the class is Shanghai. Another is Singapore. And they are reaping the benefits.

Let’s see what our own government make of it all.

Poor performance

For such a small number, a school’s Progress 8 score can be quite a big deal. So the last thing we need is an exam board messing up the performance tables process by not sending complete data to the DfE.

Progress 8 error in performance table checking after BTEC gaffe
Peter Atherton, data manager at a school in Wakefield, told Schools Week some schools had received a “nasty surprise” when they went to check the website.

“It could be the case that, if all of these qualifications were missing for your school, that could affect your progress 8 score by quite a lot. Some schools are saying they’re -0.20 below what they were expecting.”

Gaffe is such an odd word, if you think about it. French, I guess. Would that make Pearson a gaffeur?

It is the second gaffe relating to BTECs to hit the exam board this year.

In August, Pearson was forced to apologise after it hiked grade boundaries for its BTEC Tech Awards just days before pupils were due to collect their results, meaning youngsters were handed lower grades than they were expecting.

Requires improvement, I’d say.

They’re doing their best

People are getting a little twitchy about GCSE results day tomorrow, I think.

Poorer pupils twice as likely to fail key GCSEs
Russell Hobby, the chief executive of the education charity Teach First, which carried out the research, said: “A child’s postcode should never determine how well they do at school, yet today we’ve found huge disparities based on just that. Low attainment at GCSE is a real cause for concern as it can shut doors to future success and holds young people back from meeting their aspirations.”

Pupils ‘refusing to sit GCSE exams in new tougher format’
“Making exams harder doesn’t make kids smarter or more employable. It does make them more stressed, anxious and depressed – especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds,” one senior teacher told ASCL.

Another said it was “soul-destroying” to see well-prepared students struggle to cope: “The difficulty of reformed GCSEs places undue stresses upon students and staff. The sheer volume of examinations in such a short space of time leads to tired and weary students.”

GCSE results: further decline in arts and technical subjects
This is a story echoed elsewhere, in the decline in arts GCSE and A-levels and the steady but steep decline in BTEC vocationally related qualifications. And it seems to blame for these changes is the arrival of the English Baccalaureate (Ebacc) – a set of subjects at GCSE that are said to keep “young people’s options open for further study and future careers” – but which appears to do the opposite.

The result you were after?

Another year, another A-level results day, another set of the usual stories in the media. This one caught my eye, though, about Labour’s plans to change the university application process timeline, removing the need for predicted grades.

A-level results: a minority of students achieve predicted marks, so yes the system should be reformed
It’s generally accepted that going to university plays a significant part in shaping lives, and the skills gained there help to sustain a thriving society. So it seems odd that at the heart of this process is guesswork – with the bulk of university offers based on predicted grades.

Indeed, Labour has announced plans to replace offers based on predicted grades with a new “fairer” system of post-qualification admissions. Under Labour’s plans, students would apply for their higher education place after receiving their results instead of the current system of predicted grades – which the party says penalises disadvantaged students and those from minority backgrounds.

My first reaction with these kinds of plans is to almost faint at the thought of the upheaval everyone would have to go through. Hundreds of universities, thousands of schools, millions of students. Would there have to be a pilot implementation with just a few schools? Or just a few universities? How would that work? Would that create a two-tier system? Could it really all be turned around in such a short timeframe? What if it all went wrong?

But then, if other countries can do it, why can’t we?

All of which makes Labour’s most recent suggestions of reforming the system a step in the right direction. Indeed, a 2019 report from The University and College Union revealed that post-qualification admissions were the global norm, and that countries the UK often benchmarks against – such as Germany, Singapore, Australia and the US – all use this system.

The OECD’s top five countries with the highest performing graduates also use post-qualification admissions – so it’s possible that students in those countries are being better matched to institutions and thriving accordingly.

Statistically insignificant?

One of the dangers at just looking at the numbers.

Progress 8 scores for most schools aren’t that different
There were over 300 schools with P8 scores between -0.05 and +0.05 – a difference of over 300 rank places (10% of schools) between the highest and lowest scoring of them. But what do these numbers mean?

Let’s say the score for School A was +0.05 and School B was -0.05. Taking the numbers at face value, one interpretation is that if you picked two pupils with the same KS2 attainment, the two pupils would have the same grades in seven of the subjects included in Attainment 8 but the pupil from School A would have one grade higher in one and only one subject than the pupil in School B.

Is this an educationally important difference?

It depends?

And talking of Progress 8 confidence intervals…

statistically-insignificant

xkcd: Error bars

Grade inflation to stop, but how?

The inquiry into university grade inflation that the Guardian told us about earlier has published its report, and it’s quite damning.

Universities watchdog threatens fines over grade inflation
Nicola Dandridge, the OfS chief executive, said: “This report shows starkly that there has been significant and unexplained grade inflation since 2010-11. This spiralling grade inflation risks undermining public confidence in our higher education system.”

I was interested to read this aspect of the research’s findings.

Increases in first-class degrees among students entering university with lower A-level results are particularly striking. Graduates who achieved the equivalent of two Cs and a D were almost three times more likely to graduate with first-class honours in 2016/7 compared with six years earlier.

There is no parallel increase in degree attainment among graduates with top A-level results, and in the main it is the institutions with lower entry tariffs where the highest unexplained increases have been found.

Ouch. I wonder if the threat of fines will make a difference, though. I can’t see lecturers changing how they mark assessed work because of this. Universities will either have to amend their programmes of study to increase challenge, or adjust their regulations to lower the proportions of firsts and two-ones they award.

I hope they follow up this research with more next year. Will this increase continue?

grade-inflation

The only way is up

Whilst I’ve not worked in the HE sector for about four years now, I still like to keep an eye on what’s going on. And I see the grade inflation debate is continuing.

UK universities to hold inquiry into degree awards policies
The report led by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education concludes that while it is difficult to pinpoint the causes, perceptions of grade inflation could erode the usefulness of honours degree classes and undermine confidence in academic standards.

Perhaps the lecturers and students are just getting cleverer?

The report found that improvements in student performance, better teaching and increased efficiency “only explain a certain proportion of the uplift” in degree classes.

I wonder what could be causing this, then.

Public attitudes, including employers’ perceptions that first and 2:1 degrees are “good” degrees, may also act as incentives. Noting that institutions with a high proportion of upper degrees receive a boost in some league table, the report said: “Where competition to attract students is high, institutions have an incentive to perform well in league tables.”

Ah.

When I was a university Deputy Registrar, I was involved in Professor Bob Burgess’s nationwide HEAR implementation group, established, in part, to tackle this 2:1 issue.

HEAR: Higher Education Achievement Report
The Higher Education Achievement Report (HEAR) is designed to encourage a more sophisticated approach to recording student achievement, which acknowledges fully the range of opportunities that higher education institutions in the UK offer to their students. The HEAR was launched in 2008 (with 18 institutions) following recommendations that universities needed to be able to provide a more comprehensive record of student achievement.

Is that still a thing? (I note the © notice in their website footer is now three four five years out-of-date.) It’s a shame if it’s fallen away somewhat, as some of us thought it might, as it had some lofty aims. I was always frustrated, though, that it fell short of pushing for a replacement to the classification system that it deemed to be “no longer fit for purpose”.

Beyond the honours degree classification: Burgess Group Final Report October 2007 (pdf)
The diagnosis presented by the Scoping Group was simple – and one with which we swiftly concurred – the UK honours degree is a robust and highly-valued qualification but the honours degree classification system is no longer fit for purpose. It cannot describe, and therefore does not do full justice to, the range of knowledge, skills, experience and attributes of a graduate in the 21st century. Exploring how to reform or replace the classification system has not been easy. We have conducted extensive work to develop a practical set of proposals upon which we are all agreed.

One method I use to try to keep up-to-date with HE politics is to read Wonkhe, a website for “higher education wonks: those who work in and around universities and anyone interested and engaged in higher education policy, people and politics.”

This was their take on the HEAR, from 2007.

Degree classifications: just too good to lose
The report basically accepts that changing the traditional degree classification system is just too darn difficult and that we can only get round it by adding a new and improved transcript (with a new name – HEAR) to provide lots of extra info. […] Not the finest example of progressive thinking from UK universities. What proportion of students have to get a 2:1 before we change the system? Will anyone go it alone?

They have quite a few articles on grade inflation for me to catch up with; this debate has been churned over for a while now.

UK degree algorithms: the nuts and bolts of grade inflation (July 2018)

Signals for some or benefit for all: grade inflation in context (June 2018)

Bang! – grade inflation in TEF3 (June 2018)

Criteria or quotas for success? Grade inflation and the role of norm-referencing (June 2018)

Grade inflation: a clear and present danger (May 2018)

Taking on grade inflation in UK higher education (January 2018)

Are today’s degrees really first class? (January 2018)

Grade inflation could be the next battleground for higher education (January 2018)

‘Too many Firsts’ mean another discussion of GPA (October 2017)

Below standard: grade inflation in TEF (September 2017)

Another false dawn for Grade Point Averages? (June 2016)

REF results marred by fears over grade inflation (December 2014)

“Reduced”?

Have I just been insulted by the head of Ofsted?

Spielman: Teachers ‘reduced to data managers’
Teachers have been reduced to “data managers” instead of “experts in their field”, Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman will argue today. “I don’t know a single teacher who went into teaching to get the perfect Progress 8 score (a measure of pupil progress),” she will tell a schools conference in Newcastle this morning.

I see her point, though that’s unfortunate paraphrasing from TES. The Guardian’s version, after the speech actually took place, also has the line ‘reduced teachers to the status of “data managers”.’

Here’s the full, less patronising, quote, with no reduction to be seen.

Amanda Spielman speech to the SCHOOLS NorthEast summit
The bottom line is that we must make sure that we, as an inspectorate, complement rather than intensify performance data, because our curriculum research and a vast amount of sector feedback have told us that a focus on performance data is coming at the expense of what is taught in schools.

A new focus on substance should change that, bringing the inspection conversation back to the substance of young people’s learning and treating teachers like the experts in their field, not just data managers. I don’t know a single teacher who went into teaching to get the perfect progress 8 score. They go into it because they love what they teach and want children to love it too. That is where the inspection conversation should start and with the new framework, we have an opportunity to do just that.

And here’s another write-up, that doesn’t mention us data managers at all.

Spielman: Focus on substance over outcomes will help tackle workload
The chief inspector said she did not think there was an “appetite to revive the inspection model of 20 years ago”, but that the new framework, which will come into effect next September, will build on some of the “strengths” of the current system, “especially letting leaders tell their own story”.

“I also want to rebalance inspector time usage so that more time is spent on site, having those professional conversations with leaders and teachers, with less time away from schools and colleges in pre and post-inspection activity.”

Happy statistics day

It’s GCSE results day and, despite the new grading system, the news people are bringing out updated versions of their usual it’s-getting-better-it’s-getting-worse stories.

GCSE results day 2018: New ‘tougher’ exams favour boys as gender gap narrowest in seven years
Girls remain in the lead, with 23.4 per cent achieving one of the highest grades, which is the same as last year, compared to 17.1 per cent of boys, up from 16.2 per cent last year. But the gap in top grades between boy and girls is now at its narrowest since 2010, with boys just 6.3 per cent behind girls, down from 7.2 per cent last year.

GCSE results rise despite tougher exams
A total of 20 of the most popular GCSE subjects in England have been graded for the first time in the numerical format – plus English and maths, which were introduced in the new format last year. These include history, geography, sciences and modern languages, all of which have been designed to be more difficult.

Of those achieving all grade 9s – and taking at least seven of the new GCSEs – almost two-thirds were girls.

GCSEs: boys close gap on girls after exams overhaul
Boys appear to have been the major beneficiary of the overhaul of GCSE examinations taken in England for the first time this summer, as results showed across-the-board improvements in boys gaining top marks while girls saw their share of top grades dip.

Across the UK the proportion of students gaining an A or 7 and above, the new top grade used in England, rose above 20%, with boys in England closing the gap on girls with an almost one percentage point rise to 17.1% with girls unchanged at 23.4%.

In the reformed GCSEs in England, 4.3% of the results were the new highest 9 grade, set at a higher mark than the previous A* grade. The figures on Thursday showed 732 students attained seven or more grade 9s.

Despite the improvements by boys in England they were still outperformed by girls at the highest level: 5% of entries by girls received 9s, compared with just 3.6% of boys.

GCSE pass rate goes UP – but fewer students get new top ‘9’ grade compared to old A* mark
The overall pass rate – the percentage of students getting a 4 or above or a C or above – was 66.9 per cent, compared with 66.4 per cent last year.

But just 4.3 per cent of exams were given the new 9 grade, which was brought in to reward the absolute highest achievers. Just 732 students in England got a clean sweep of seven or more grade 9s.

Previously around seven per cent of exams scored the top A* grade.

The more detail-oriented education sector websites are worth a read, if you really want to dig down into all this.

GCSE results 2018: How many grade 9s were awarded in the newly reformed subjects?
There has been a curious amount of interest in how many students might achieve straight 9s in all subjects. It seems to have started with a throwaway remark on twitter by the then-chief scientific adviser at the Department for Education that only two students would do so. Tom Benton from Cambridge Assessment then produced some excellent research showing that it would, in fact, be several hundred.

Today Ofqual has answered the question once and for all. A total of 732 students who took at least seven reformed GCSEs achieved grade 9 in all of them. Given that fewer grade 9s are awarded than grade A*, it should come as no surprise that fewer students will achieve straight grade 9s compared to straight grade A*s.

But it can get a little heavy-going at times.

GCSE results day 2018: The main trends in entries and grades
Across all subjects, 21.5% of entries were awarded a grade 7/A or above, compared to 21.1% last year. At grade 4/C or above, 69.3% of entries achieved the standard this year, compared to 68.9% last year. Both figures have been on something of a downward trend since 2015, so this year’s figures arrest this decline.

GCSE and A-Level results analysis
Explore trends in national entry and attainment data between 2014 and 2018 in:
All subjects
Additional mathematics
Additional science
Art and design subjects
Biology
Business and communication systems
Business studies
Chemistry
Citizenship studies

GCSE 2018 variability charts: Are your results normal?
Each year Ofqual produces boring-sounding variability charts. It sounds dull but they show how many centres, i.e. schools or colleges, dropped or increased their results compared with the previous year. This means that if you dropped, say, 25 per cent in one subject, you can see how many other schools also saw the same dip.

Let’s give the last word to the JCQ and Ofqual, and have done with it: I’m getting a headache.

JCQ Joint Council for Qualifications: Examination results
Each year, JCQCIC collates the collective results for its members from more than 26 million scripts and items of coursework. We only publish collated results from our members though and cannot supply regional, centre or candidate information.

Ofqual Analytics
Ofqual analytics presents a selection of data in an engaging and accessible way by using interactive visualisations. We hope this innovative approach to presenting data will make it easier to understand and explore the data we produce.

Map of GCSE (9 to 1) grade outcomes by county in England
The map shows reformed GCSE full course results (the percentage of students achieving specific grades) in England by subject and county for the summer 2018 examination series as well as the summer 2017 examination series. Data in the map represents the results that were issued on results day for both years (23 August 2018 and 24 August 2017) and do not reflect any changes following post-results services.

happy-statistics-day-2

(All I know is that my boy got his GCSE results today too, and they’re a credit to the amount of time and effort he’s put in over the years.)

Yes, year 11 exams are challenging; that’s the idea

Tom Sherrington on the need for balance and pragmatism when considering school exams.

GCSE Exams: Keeping a proportionate positive perspective.
Despite the fact that we’ve been running Y11 exams in one form or another for decades, there is always a fairly strong undercurrent in the discourse around the annual exam season characterised by a sense of injustice and unreasonableness. […]

This recent article by Simon Jenkins is a classic example of this kind of anti-exam hysteria. It’s so way over the top, it’s hard to take any of the arguments seriously.

Let me restore some balance.

My son’s just about finished his year 11 exams, and I’ve been very proud of his attitude towards them. He’s really taken to heart the maxim, ‘you get out what you put in’.

In my view there is a healthy pressure and work ethic that endpoint assessments generate. As a parent I’ve been quite happy to see my kids work really hard – super hard – for several months, motivated by the desire to succeed; to be ready to do their best. I totally reject the idea that this is intrinsically unfair or unhealthy or that the kind of exam revision required to get top GCSE grades is superficial and temporary. Would our kids know more in five years’ time if they hadn’t sat their exams – no! They’d know much less. They have much greater chance of remembering knowledge having had to revise extensively. This is particularly true, for both of my children and countless students I’ve taught, because the exam revision process had yielded multiple lightbulb moments. The intensity of study suddenly brings things together that were only half understood before.

Stressful, testing times

Haven’t we been here before?

Primary school headteacher quits over government’s curriculum reforms with emotional letter
On the controversial Sats exams, Ms Ahmad told The Independent: “I don’t have an issue at all with assessment but why do we have to put these pressures on children? In Year 6 it is exam conditions. In my opinion it is wrong – these children are 10 or 11.

“I feel that cannot put children’s needs first, and in my opinion that is the most important thing. I would do anything to look after my children but it has become harder and harder to do.” Earlier this month, The Independent revealed that thousands of parents are expected to withdraw their 10- and 11-year-olds from the Sats exams next month over concerns about their wellbeing.

Here’s Michael Rosen’s view on the SATs, from a few years ago now.

Michael Rosen: They say we’ve politicised the children’s stress. No, it’s the stress that’s political.
When you have high stakes*, summative**, norm-referenced*** testing, (e.g. SATs) you have to have enough questions which a given percentage of people will get wrong. That’s because the people who design these tests are told that the results have to come out looking right on a particular kind of graph. This is the so-called ‘normal’ distribution of children or students doing a given exam. If a test is given and ‘too many’ children appear to have done well, then the test will be condemned as being ‘too easy’ and newspaper columnists will say that the country is going to the dogs. So, these kinds of tests must have the ‘right’ proportion of failures. It has to be built-in to the test, and into the lead-up to the tests – in other words into what we call ‘education’ (!).

I guess those issues haven’t gone away. But look the government says it’s all going well, right?

Primary school tests show schools rising to the challenge
The national Key Stage 2 results show that 61% of primary school children in England achieved the expected standard, compared to 53% last year.

Counting the uncountable

“Not all things worth counting are countable and not all things that count are worth counting.”
Albert Einstein (Or was it?)

Chris Dillow reviews The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller, a book about “how the obsession with quantifying human performance threatens our schools, medical care, businesses, and government.”

The Tyranny of Metrics: a review
Muller provides lots of examples of this, mostly from the US. But you’ll all have examples of your own. In universities the Research Assessment Exercise (now the REF) contributed to increased administration costs and perhaps to the replicability crisis by incentivizing the publication of mediocre research. In schools, targets can encourage teaching to the test, endless revision and a focus upon the marginal student to the neglect of both the strongest and weakest. Waiting-time targets might distort clinical priorities. Immigration targets deter foreign students and lead to the harassment of people who have lived here for decades. Sales targets encourage workers to mis-sell financial products, cook the books, or increase risk by encouraging “liars’ loans. And so on.

It’s not all bad news, though. It’s just a question of balancing the quantitative with the qualitative.

The Tyranny of Metrics is not, however, a diatribe against targets. Muller points to the experience of some US hospitals to show that metrics can work. They do so, he says, when they are “based on collaboration and peer review”:

Measurements are more likely to be meaningful when they are developed from the bottom up, with input from teachers, nurses and the cop on the beat.

In other words, metrics can succeed when they are complements to knowledge: when they organize the tacit and dispersed professional judgements of people who know ground truth.

Ofsted grades not fit for purpose?

A very interesting read about the need to move away from Ofsted grades.

Five reasons to ditch Ofsted grades
I reckon that in 50 years time, we will look back at the current Ofsted-grading era as one of the big educational blackspots of history. Serious educationalists and policy makers will laugh in knowing horror … at the extraordinary folly of a defunct inspection regime that involved sending a tiny team of people to schools they’d never been to before for a day or two to evaluate them against a massively long list of criteria and give them an overall one-word judgement. All of this while also projecting a national illusion that these judgements made by different people were fair, accurate, reliable and consistent across time and across the nation. And all of that alongside the delusion that this actually made for an ever-improving education system. Ho ho.

[…]

5. Every School Requires Improvement. Finally, isn’t this just the most obvious thing; all schools require improvement. Wouldn’t it just be so much better if we took all the labels off the reports, forced people to read them and left all schools with a record of their areas of strength and areas for development? Sure, we need a category for ‘below the line’ – and a separate process for dealing with urgent safeguarding failures – but even here I would argue that it should be called something that suggested maximum support was on its way, recognising the challenges at work – not the pejorative Jack Boots of ‘inadequate’ that just kicks everyone in the teeth.

TEF teething problems

TEF boycott fears allayed as elite universities opt in
With the deadline for applications to year two of the teaching excellence framework (TEF) closing at noon on 26 January, concerns remained that some of England’s elite institutions would decide to opt out of the policy because vice-chancellors were doubtful that the financial benefits of inflationary fee increases would outweigh the reputational damage caused by not being rated outstanding.

Not involved with HE matters anymore, sadly, but still like to keep an eye on what’s going on. I can only imagine how much of an admin and data burden this new performance measure framework is. Is it just another example of the search for a simplistic, numerical proxy for quality, I wonder?