Despite having covered this subject for more than four years now, I am constantly surprised by the extent to which teaching to the test appears to have become a defining feature of our education system.
More evidence came my way during a recent seminar at the annual conference of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors in London. Academics from the AQA exam board presented the findings of interviews they had conducted during the last year with 39 first year undergraduate students at Bristol and Manchester who had gained A grades in psychology and biology in last year’s A-levels.
The central finding was that the students said that doing well in the exam was more about knowing the content of the mark scheme than understanding and mastering the subject. Many students, said the researchers, had spent a long time analysing the mark schemes, trying to assess what the examiner was looking for and then not wasting their time with answers which did not fit this precise formula.
One said: “I literally learnt the mark scheme. I was like well there’s no point in trying to go into the details of why this [biological process] works. I knew exactly what wording they wanted.”
Another said: “I would tell anyone just to focus on the mark schemes and the past papers and go through them rather than the content because they teach you more.”
Another said: “You start to realise that A-levels aren’t about how good you are at a subject. it’s about how good you are at understanding the mark scheme. You need to understand how you might answer the question and what the examiners are looking for.”
Suzanne Chamberlain, who presented the findings, said: “It’s not about learning for learning’s sake. These candidates were absolutely focused on one end goal, and they knew what they had to do to reach that goal.
“They made a great deal of reference to assessment objectives and they made it clear that they knew about those. They could identify what assessment objectives were targeting, and they knew how to allocate the marks required for different assessment objectives.
“They would say: ‘I would do my description paragraph, and my evaluation paragraph, so many points in each paragraph to make so that I make sure that I can access these marks.'”
Students did not just look at mark schemes once, or do one past paper, said Dr Chamberlain. Instead, they took as many past papers and looked at as many past papers “as they could get their hands on”.
Perhaps most damningly, Dr Chamberlain added: “In some cases, this examination training undermined the need to understand content by focusing on the mark schemed; they could just pick up the phrases that they needed to score points, without necessarily understanding the content.
“They were unprepared for anything that was different. If they went into an examination and there was a bit of extra space on the examination paper, the students said it would throw them out. What was the extra space for, they asked.”
The research was carried out against the background of planned changes to A-levels being introduced in courses which began last year. These are seeing the introduction of the A* grade and, it is said, more challenging questions. The reforms are also supposed to tackle specifically the problem of “formulaic” examining and teaching. But it was unclear from the seminar how this would happen in practice.
There is certainly no move, as far as I am aware, to ban the publication of mark schemes. As someone who went through secondary education in the 1980s, this would make sense to me. Beyond working hard to make sure we understood the question and made our answers address it directly, we had no more detail on what examiners were looking for and I think our education was the better for that. In a results-are-everything culture though, when the grades are seen to be more important than the education which underlies them, this view may struggle for attention. Some may argue that it would not be right to keep mark schemes secret, when examiners have access to them. But not all elements of exams are open, the most obvious example being the fact that the papers themselves are not revealed in advance. If someone can give me a good educational reason why pupils need to be shown mark schemes, I would like to hear it.
More evidence on the short-termism evident in this system is available in the form of an article in the Daily Telegraph today, based on a press release from the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors.