League tables and computer-based exams

Friday, February 25th

Just a quick blog now on two interesting stories in this morning’s TES.

First, Helen Ward wrote a piece about the Government abandoning plans billed as “league tables for five-year-olds”. This proposal, spotted by Helen in the small print of the Department for Education’s draft Business Plan last autumn, said data would have been published on the “achievements of children at the end of the Early Years Foundation Stage Profile, by school”.

Today’s story reveals that the move is being abandoned, following serious opposition including a petition which garnered nearly 1,000 signatures. Those quoted in the piece were all opposed to the Government’s move, with objections including that it would load too much pressure on to young children.

This is very welcome news, of course. Government ideology would say that requiring institutions to publish results, and then encouraging them to compete to raise those scores, inevitability pushes up standards.

However, the widespread concern that, perhaps, the consequence of this would be to push early years providers to over-concentrate on early years foundation profile data, thus ratcheting up pressure on children with the government using the profiles for a purpose for which they were not designed, seems to have won the day.

Many will also have observed that other countries – including the oft-quoted success story that is Finland – don’t try to race ahead with pushing children towards formal goals at an early age at all.

A generalised sense – at least in most of the Government’s rhetoric – that transparency and data production is always a good thing seems to have been trumped, then, by concerns about the implications of this in the early years.

The petition organiser also fears, however, that change along the original Government lines might come back at some stage, so I will be watching for developments.

One thing I wonder, actually, looking back at the business plan, is a section earlier on in the document where the DfE pledges to : “Work with local authorities to develop a plan to increase voluntary and community sector involvement within Sure Start Children’s Centres, improve accountability arrangements, increase the use of evidence-based interventions, and introduce greater payment by results.”

Does “payment by results” mean payment by assessment results, I wonder? I will try to get some more information on this. For a longer blog I wrote on payment-by-result thinking at the top level of the coalition, see this piece.

The second story , by William Stewart, related to a suggestion by Isabel Nisbet, the outgoing chief executive of Ofqual, that computers should replace pen and paper in all exams, with GCSEs and A-levels taken in the traditional manner running the risk of becoming “invalid” for today’s pupils.

These were very interesting comments, and were seized upon enthusiastically by two of England’s three main exam boards. (The other, OCR, sounded more cautious),as well as being followed up elsewhere in the media.

Many would agree with the sentiments behind these comments– it will strike many as anachronous that teenagers still spend up to three hours hunched over a desk scribbling away, when longhand writing has next to no place in today’s workplace.

But the aspirations voiced by Ms Nisbet, whom I respect, by the way, have been around for years now. The question is not whether computerisation in this way would be a good thing in an ideal world, but how detailed practical problems facing anyone who wants to move the system in this way can be overcome.

As the article mentions, back in 2004 Ken Boston as head of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority set out a series of detailed milestones which would have seen the system largely computerised by 2009. But none of these were achieved. (See an article I wrote on this here).

I can’t help wondering how much has changed in the intervening two years since I wrote that last piece. I asked the Ofqual press office if Ms Nisbet, or anyone at Ofqual, had any detailed plan as to how her objectives could be achieved, wondering also how exam boards might be helped with computerisation. I was told: “There is not [a plan] as such. It was just Isabel setting out what she thinks should happen in the future.”

I wonder how long we will be waiting.

1 Comment

  1. Dear Mr Mansell,
    Concerning Computer-based Exams:

    I have read fairly extensively around this topic as I believe that as we move progressively towards a paperless education system eAssessment will inevitably follow. [My own interest is in ePortfolio systems.]

    Those opposed to such a future and cannot see anything wrong with a 3-hr pen and paper ‘test’ pose childish arguments concerning the ability of a computer to mark an English essay or the potential of all ICT equipment being reserved for examinations in all subjects for two whole months.

    I wonder, therefore, if you have considered WHAT is best tested using ICT and whether there is a valid argument for ‘stage not age’.

    I quote an extract from a paper by Judith Boettcher that sums up my position:

    “Toward Paper-less Assessment

    “End-of-course activities where learners share their projects can be much more stimulating and
    energizing when learners have more choices in projects that enable them to tap into their creativity
    and their enjoyment in learning and sharing. Such alternatives also mean students and faculty reach
    out beyond the course to engage other experts and to provide service and expertise to others while
    bringing excitement and possibly even accountability back into our learning experiences.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *