Coursework and GCSE: A case against

It is widely agreed that examinations for 16 year olds are in a mess. To a large extent, this can be attributed to commercial competition and the understandable need for teachers and schools to show good results (also part of the modern emphasis on measuring everything, even if what is to be measured is unmeasurable). But this need has become a problematic issue, and unfortunately coursework is part of it. As a result, we are seeing it being largely phased out of the education system.

Some teachers are unhappy with the elimination of coursework from GCSE. This unhappiness is inappropriate, however. Surely anything that lightens  teachers’ workload is to be welcomed, even if  the bearer of the gift has impure motives.

We have to ask, ‘What is the purpose of exams?’ Are they simply a means of checking that schools and their teachers are performing well? The presence or absence of coursework will make little difference to the mark achieved in them. As a method of identifying able young people, it can no longer be argued they do this very well ( if they ever did), either, because too many higher grades are awarded. The truth is that students who shine in exams are usually also good at coursework. It is something of a myth to hypothesise the existence of significant numbers of students who do well in class but fall to pieces when faced with time-constrained work.

The suspicion seems to be that teachers give too much help with coursework, thus invalidating it as a measure of student ability. If this be a common practice (which I doubt), consider how it has come about; if rules are made, then inevitably those subject to them will find ways of  using them to achieve a desired outcome.

If there is a solution to the problem of grade devaluation, then the solution must surely be to change GCSE from being criterion-referenced so that in principle all can succeed, to a norm-referenced style whereby a fixed percentage of candidates are allocated to each grade level. There is little reason to suppose that student quality and test difficulty varies very much from year to year, and the fixing of grade boundaries is in itself a subjective decision based largely on the opinions of a handful of examiners.

Coursework, then, is an unnecessary burden on students and teachers alike. Good riddance to it.

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