The exam system seems to be in a constant state of flux. The Department of Education wrongly cannot leave it alone. Governments have an obsession with reforming which seems to stem from identifying real or imagined problems, and then, rather than solving them, they make radical reforms. They also have knee-jerk reactions not based on reasoning, such as the sudden removal of Key Stage 3 SATs.
Regular reforms of the exam system have a major impact on students, but this seems to be largely ignored by the education establishment, and it is this oversight that creates the confusion and sense of unfairness they feel on the subject. Students often do not understand why the changes are made, and they consistently view their exam experience as more difficult than that of previous year groups. They see a lack of sense and consistency in the way the system operates. If you are sitting major exams this makes life more difficult than it needs to be.
The other impression regular change gives, especially when something is reintroduced that used to operate, like end-of-course exams, is that the education establishment does not really know what works or what it wants. It seems to be structured on the whims of the latest Secretary of State for Education. This does not inspire any confidence, particularly in students.
There are some things that are better than 40 years ago. For a good 20 years or so exam papers have been much more user friendly and more examining than old papers. Exam papers of the past were dry and dull; modern questions tend to be broken down into several smaller sections and ask for a mix of one word, short, more structured answers. The degree of difficulty can also increase as a student works through a question. Different styles of questions like multiple-choice are also very useful. Mark schemes are now very specific about what scores marks. This all helps the assessment of student knowledge and understanding as fully as possible and is very positive.
However, the debate about the rigour of exams has been a little false. It is easy to adapt exams year on year depending on the standards that are wished for. The debate about grades has also been silly. Grade inflation did occur, because governments wanted to demonstrate their reforms were improving performance, but as students were not getting any brighter, the only way governments could guarantee the degree of improvement they wanted was to fiddle with grade boundaries. This only served to generate the perennial argument that exams were not rigorous enough and should be made harder. The debate about rigour and the difficulty of differentiating between abilities using exam grades is also somewhat exaggerated.
The debate about modular versus end-of-course exams is a valid one, but it is too political and does not focus on student needs. There is no doubt that doing an end-of-course exam is tougher than being examined in stages through the modular system. An A grade at A-level as it used to be, after two years study, carried much more weight and was a more meaningful indication of a person’s ability than an A after sitting separate modules. There is a similar value in end-of-course exams at GCSE. However, end-of-course exams do not suit a large number of average and below average students. The educational establishment also forgets that teenagers do not have fully developed brains, and the vast majority have poor long term memories. We tend to assume that once a topic is covered, they will or should remember. However, they invariably forget. This reality about young people makes it far more sensible to have modular GCSEs, as it improves their performance and subsequent opportunities. Both modular and end-of-course exams could operate at A-level, and of course this could also aid differentiation of students.
One final point regarding exams is that we should invest more in those running the exam boards. Many staff involved are not full time and also work in a teaching capacity, so they are often too stretched to meet the demands placed on them. This is a case of the government wanting too much for too little and it is this part of the system that they should invest in. It is hard to imagine that their actions elsewhere will win many votes.