Equality of access to public examinations: how can we shift the exam grade bell-curve?

The last few weeks in August in the UK – and, indeed, in British international schools across the world – are a hive of activity (and emotion). These are the weeks when the results of A Levels and then GCSEs are published, and with them, university destinations for students are confirmed, and teachers reflect on their past year, and then take that learning with them to the next year’s cohort of students. Students, meantime, wrestle with decisions born from the grades they have received – some pathways open up, others dry up. How they react and respond to this time can make or hinder them in their future.

Given the pressures and emotions of this period, I do think that this is also a time of year when it is also important to reflect on what the phrase ‘equality of access to education’ can and should mean. In their Sustainable Development Goals, the UN emphasise that ‘Providing quality education for all is fundamental to creating a peaceful and prosperous world. Education gives people the knowledge and skills they need to stay healthy, get jobs and foster tolerance.’ … and I cannot imagine that anyone reading this would disagree. It does of course assume that we can collectively reach an understanding of what passes for ‘quality education’ … that is a whole other stream of thought, however. Assuming that we can already have a broad and working (if imperfect) understanding of what ‘quality education’ can embrace, we can also recognise, very quickly, that the reality of how to achieve equality of access to this quality education is not straightforward – and much of it actually depends on quality of access to preparation for public examinations.

In most current education systems, public examinations – which are still the best impartial, unbiased, nationally (and internationally) validated means we have of establishing what a student knows and can do (within the limitations of the subject specifications, of course) – are the most common gateway for a young person to their future. There is some amazing work being done by organisations like Think Learning Studio on challenging this through a focus on portfolios; for the moment, however, most students have to face examinations which are actually competitions for top grades rather than pure reflections of achievement. This means that not only do candidates have to score highly in their exams, but they have to score more highly than significant numbers of other candidates in order to be awarded a good grade. Examination awarding bodies over the years have evolved complex statistical models which – while seeking to maintain grading based essentially on standards and levels of achievement – nonetheless expect and anticipate that certain percentages of students will do less well than others, and this is reflected in the number of grades awarded in different bands.

This expectation is now baked into our system; put differently, if every student in an examination scored 100%, the first assumption of most internal and external stakeholders, including politicians and the media, would be that the exam itself was too easy, rather than that all the students taking the exam had acquired the knowledge and skills necessary to achieve full marks. A manifestation of this assumption was seen in 2023 with the UK examination boards, when it was determined that grade boundaries should rise, so that fewer students would gain the top grades. This may have brought the percentages achieving top grades back in line with the pre-Covid grades, which is in many respects sensible, to avoid discrediting the exams (‘grade inflation’ equals ‘easier exams’), but it does not address the issue of how we can support young people to reach the grades that will enable them to fight for those higher grades. Nor – dare I say it – does it address the issue of how we strengthen the case for the shifting of the exam grade bell curve in a way which does not presume grade inflation, but rather comes as the result of students actually developing increased knowledge and skills – and (most importantly of all, if I dare say this too) being grounded, confident, service-oriented, well-prepared amazing young people – again, a whole other stream of thought.

For us to shift this exam grade bell-curve, much has to change in our national education provision – and I know from my work around the world that what applies in the UK is true elsewhere. One of the stark realisations I have had in recent years from supporting the CEO and team at Mark My Papers, as Chair of their Advisory Board, is that the quality of preparation for examinations of students by many national or state schools is very precarious. I have written in the past about my admiration for Mark My Papers and the work they do in giving schools – any school, regardless of their demographic – swift, accurate, unbiased feedback on students’ mock exams, and I continue to be impressed (which is why I support them!), not least because it is painfully obvious from so many of the papers that they mark that the students have not been well-prepared for their gateway public examinations. This can occur because students were taught by a non-specialist teacher, or because a change in the subject specifications has gone unnoticed, or because the students have not had enough practice in the very particular technique needed to answer question types, or (and this affects every single school in some way – ignore this, schools, at your peril!) because of unconscious bias in teacher marking (eg “I know this is what they meant to say, so I will give them the mark”).

Much of this can be attributed to lack of investment in education, of course (yet another stream of thought …) – regardless of the reasons, however, the stark reality is that students do not currently have equality of access to education because they do not have equality of access to exam preparation. We all know that exams are not the be-all and end-all of education – far, far from it! … but in our current world, exams are important for so, so many young people, and we owe it to these young people to find ways to guarantee them greater equality of access to this often defining aspect of their education.

I wonder if we could aim to shift the exam grade bell-curve just a bit this coming year, because our students really have learned and performed better … Just a thought.

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.