Five things we’ve learned about Ofqual and exams today

MPs quizzed the exams watchdog’s chief executive, Glenys Stacey, and its chair, Amanda Spielman, earlier today. Here’s what we learned

Ofqual could be cooling on the idea of the National Reference Test

The new test, planned to be introduced from 2017, is designed to monitor the performance of each year’s cohort as an independent guide to where GCSE grades should be set. It has been seen as the solution to allowing grades to rise without sparking accusations of “grade inflation”.

But during the session Ms Stacey said Ofqual was not “nailed to the National Reference Test come what may”, adding that the watchdog would continue to weigh the benefits of the test against its costs.

She acknowledged there was a risk that students might share the questions from the exam paper on social media – which would be a problem, because for the test to be fair the questions must be very similar from one year to the next.

But Ms Spielman said there was “no advantage in looking up the answers” because the results did not count for students or schools. Asked about concerns that already-stressed Year 11 pupils should not be subject to extra exams in the run-up to GCSEs, she said the tests should take about an hour and be “a passing distraction in the wind”.

Ms Stacey also said that headteachers would have some “discretion” about which of their pupils to enter for the tests, which would pave the way for parents to ask schools to exempt their children.

Ofqual is not convinced there is a shortage of exam markers

In recent months, signs have emerged that exam boards are struggling to find enough exam markers to cope with a rise in demand caused by the shift towards linear exams. In July, it emerged that one exam board had been advertising for markers in a cruise holiday magazine, presumably in the hope of attracting retired teachers. Last month, Michael O’Sullivan, chief executive of Cambridge International Examinations, said its sister board OCR was considering using overseas examiners as demand for markers rose. And boards have set up a taskforce that aims to persuade more teachers to become markers.

But when asked today what steps Ofqual was taking to alleviate a shortage of examiners, Ms Stacey said: “I’m not aware that there was a marker shortage this year.”

She said: “All marking was delivered in good time this year and the marker and examiner workforce, as far as I’m aware, is consistent. We need to be careful about assuming that [there’s a shortage]. That’s not to say exam boards shouldn’t always be thinking ahead.”

Face-to-face teacher briefings from exam boards could return

Ms Stacey said that Ofqual had clamped down on teacher briefings in the wake of what she called “seminar-gate” in 2011, when undercover reporters found that exam boards were giving information to teachers that made it easier for their students to pass their papers. But Ofqual is open to the idea of new face-to-face meetings between teachers and boards, Ms Stacey said, because it “wants to support teachers” as a series of exam reforms comes in.

“[In terms of] the risks versus the benefit of direct exchanges I think the balance has changed and we have committed to reviewing that,” she said today. She said the watchdog would introduce “cross-checks” to “manage the risk of undue information being exchanged”.

Re-marks can be more generous than original marks

Markers may be more generous than usual when they know they are re-marking a paper that has been challenged, Ms Stacey indicated.

“When you’re more immediately reviewing marking, the human factor is more prevalent, so you’re more likely to be aware of how close to the boundary the mark is and what is riding on it for the student,” she said. “That’s because markers are human beings and teachers.”

Ofqual is defiant about science practicals

The watchdog attracted criticism earlier this year for its decision to stop counting an assessment of practical work towards students’ final grades in science GCSEs and A-levels. But Ms Stacey today stood by her decision, saying the assessments had become “stultifying”.

“I think there’s absolute recognition that it wasn’t working, it was knocking the fun out of science and our interest was getting more practical science,” she said. “We were not able to square that with assessment at the end.”

Click here to view the whole hearing.

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