I was speaking recently with a Canadian teacher friend of mine, who was genuinely baffled by the fact that our GCSE and A-Level students are taught to narrowly prescribed, externally set and assessed, national exams. Both he and I are English teachers. The conversation, on his side, went something like this:
You mean you don’t set the texts? And you don’t set the coursework and exams? And you don’t mark the exams and award final grades? What the f***!
In many of the countries to whose standards English schools and educators are told to aspire, teacher-administered assessment – which must, of course, allow students adequate scope for meeting national or regional benchmarks – is the norm. So should it be in England. For one thing, giving schools, departments, and teachers greater control over examinations and assessments would likely help reduce student boredom and disengagement.* This, however, is not the chief reason for getting rid of centralized exams and exam boards.
The chief reason is that the boards do a poor job, especially of marking. This has been a particular problem for my department and our A-Level students.
Consider the following extracts, each of which is taken from the first two paragraphs of three responses to the AQA English Literature A2 exam (Specification B), Section A. All three candidates studied pastoral literature. Section A asks candidates to answer on a single text (or poetry cluster designed by AQA). Extract BT is longer because the writer’s paragraphs were longer than those of the other two; in fact, I stop the extract before the end of the second paragraph. I have, for the most part, copied the scripts exactly as written; any modifications or queries are indicated by square brackets. Before each extract, I have included the task to which the candidate responds.
Extract A: Consider the significance of the river in Huckleberry Finn.
Mark Twain draws on personal experience to depict the Mississippi River in Huckleberry Finn. As a man in his twenties he worked aboard a steamboat on the river, and so this element of realism contributes towards an accurate and passionate depiction of the river. Huck is imbued with this appreciation of the “monstrous river,” a childlike awe of its size. Yet as a means of escape for Huck and a path to freedom for Jim, the river takes on far more than an aesthetic significance.
Huck uses the river as an escape from [industrialization?], both from the “cramped” and “fidgety” tutelary world of Miss Watson, and the shack in which he and Pap hide out. “Pap got too handy with his hick’ry.” He longs for freedom and, in his innocence, has a powerful affiliation with the “lazy, comfortable” life it offers. He has been compared to the American pastoral ‘frontiersman,’ who chooses danger and the unknown over constraint in society. Huck certainly fits into this literary tradition, yet his youth suggests a simplicity and spontaneity in all his actions. His escape to the river is an impulsive attraction.
Extract B: Consider the ways in which Blake explores the link between the urban environment and human suffering in Songs of Innocence and of Experience.
There are several different interpretations of what the pastoral entails depending on the author, and just like literalists [read “literary critics”] such as Terry Gifford, William Blake to[o] proposes the idea that an urban environment, in contrast, to the “good” countryside represents a place of repression, restriction and human suffering. To Blake both an urban environment and human decay and deterioration are explicitly linked, as urban environments lead us further away from our natural being and closer to our corrupt and selfish natures.
It is in “Songs of Innocence” that Blake most clearly presents us with the link between urbanised environments and human suffering – and most pivotally in the poem London where “every man” and even “infant” [is at] the mercy of the corrupt ad industrialised capital city. Blake begins by describing “every chartered street,” and the use of the word “every” is pivotal, as it reminds the reader that everyone in this world of experience is affected and thus human suffering is wide spread and inescapable. Moreover, the use of the word “chartered” describes how everything within this environment is reduced to, not only industrialisation, but also profit and from our experience of the world of innocence where love and happiness is at the forefront, this provides a stark and terrifying opposition. Blake goes on to describe the “cry of fear,” which is another int[e]resting point as it demonstrates how this corrupt and hopeless environment has subjected environments to physical anguish. Whilst Blake does describe the physical torment, he also make[s] use of how London restrict[s] individuals on a mental and psychological level – for instance, he describes the “mind-forged manacles” that plague[e] the people in the town. However, we can take different things from this idea, one of them is that our minds have become restricted and constrained by the ideologies of others, which may have been the case in 18th century England, where industry was on the rise and the presence of religion (in individuals[‘] lives was at its peak) or perhaps Blake is claiming that our “manacles” are self inflicted, and if this is the case, perhaps there is a chance for redemption as long as [we] move away from the horrors, corruption and restriction of urban environments. Finally, the use of the word “forged,” reinforces this idea as it suggests that [these] manacles are created and so with enough effort we will be able to break [them]. ...
Extract C: Consider the significance of journeys in Tess of the D’Urbervilles.
The first journey Tess undertakes in the novel is to deliver the beehives to the market; on this journey Prince – the family’s horse – is killed. This event is particularly significant in the novel as this is the first event in a causally linked chain, which inevitably takes Tess to Alec and her downfall. Tess’ presence on this journey is especially important, as it was her father’s job to make the journey but he was too drunk. Tess demonstrates by making the journey her dedication to supporting her family. The guilt she feels over Prince’s death drives her to take her next journey, to the d’Urberville house to “claim kin.” Her journey to the red house ins significant, as it is her first encounter with Alec.
Throughout the novel, Tess’ main motivation for travelling is to find work. She moves to Tantridge to work, later going to the dairy and on to Flintcombe Ash after Angel’s departure. Tess travels out of necessity to these place, as she needs to find work to send money to her family. These journeys are especially significant to Tess, but most so the travel to the diary. She is surprised when Angel does not know of her past indiscretion, as Tess assumes the knowledge would have travelled as far as Tolbothays. In this sense, Tess’ journey to the dairy enables her to escape her past and the judgement of her village for a short time, allowing her a brief interlude of happiness during the summer at the dairy.
Extracts A and C are from exemplars on the AQA website. Extract B is excerpted from a paper my department recalled after the student received a surprisingly low exam grade (June 2015). The examiner awarded the response (50% of exam) from which B is taken a low B (grade B started at 46 marks; this response was awarded 23); overall, the student achieved a grade C in the exam. Extract C is from a paper that achieved a strong B-grade; Extract A is from a paper that was given a perfect score.
We can quibble about the relative quality of responses to no great end, English being a subject dogged by sloppy notions of “subjectivity” and a sense that one can say anything so long as one throws a supporting quote or two in at strategic moments. But can there really be two grades between Extracts A and B, and a grade between Extracts B and C?
All responses are competent. B has more grammatical errors, as one might guess by the number of interpolations, but none impedes communication; and what B has going for it is that it digs-in, as it were, to the texts and task and is prepared to be a little more exploratory than the others. The examiner’s comments on B, however, suggest that the student explains without ever truly analyzing. One comment reads “alternate view shows analysing clear explanation”: it seems odd that the examiner can recognize consideration of alternative readings and yet discount this as analysis. Moreover, it is hard to see how B is any less analytical in its opening passages than A (note the disconnected, unanalyzed quote in paragraph 2 of the latter: what is “Pap got too handy with his hick’ry” supposed to show us?), while C is certainly guilty of basic plot recounting.
We challenged the original mark given to the writer of B, expecting at shift of 1 or 2 marks at best. My colleague in charge of KS5 English – who, by the way, was particularly disappointed with AQA, as she has worked for them as an examiner – challenged a number of grades following the June 2015 A-Level exams. The changes were astounding: one student stayed put; three went up; two went down. The changes in both directions were all remarkable, two were incredible: the writer of Extract B went up by 7 marks, another by 8; one student went down by a similar amount (6 marks).
Now for the incredibles: one student went up 18 marks, while another went down by 24.
There is no reason to trust exam boards when fluctuations like this suggest total lack of consistency.
A recent Guardian article reports that Ofqual will make it tougher for appeals to result in changed grades, lest the exam boards and examinations system be entirely discredited. (Too late, I’d say.) Of course, the talk is of making systems (even?) more rigorous, and we are reminded of the impossibility of entirely avoiding human error in a system that involves 50,000 examiners marking more than 15,000,000 scripts.
Here’s an idea for tightening and reducing strain on systems, and improving accuracy and credibility of marking, then: limit the role of the exam boards to moderation (so that parity across the country can be approximated), and to production of supporting materials. This is already their role, more or less, when it comes to coursework and controlled assessment. As for the rest, leave it to schools, departments, and teachers. Accuracy and consistency might well be improved if any one still-gigging teacher were responsible for marking 1-2 classes’ worth of exams, rather than an over-stretched part-time examiner wading through several hundred scripts at a rate of knots.
If government has ever thought that English schools should be more like Canada’s, then it should learn some of Canada’s lessons. We could do worse than starting with genuine reform of examination and assessment systems.
* The demand that exam courses be more rigorous is generally met by producing fussier exams; exams which are harder to pass, not because they ask students to develop “deeper understanding” of the subject, but because examiners’ rubrics are increasingly narrow and unforgiving (the Cambridge IGCSE in English Language, once the darling of Michael Gove, is a good example of this). Just how engagement and enthusiasm – on the side either of teacher or students – are to be maintained until, let alone beyond, the midpoint of the second year of preparation for the same three questions is a problem I’ve yet to solve.