Exams: Why should 1/3 of students fail?

criminalatt from freedigitalphotosNot so long ago I read of a discussion in relation to whether the GCSE English Language should be scrapped.   Part of the reasoning behind this is identified as being due to the subject identifying a third of students as having failed.    As a headline I think it is difficult to disagree with.  How can identifying a third of students as having failed be an acceptable thing to do.    On reflection my view is that this issue is less about English Language subject and more about the educational system as it is now and as it has been for over one hundred years.

I remember when I worked within an FE college and I was involved in enrolment following the release of the GCSE results.   A-Level and Level 3 BTec courses had clear admissions requirements in terms of the minimum number of B’s or C’s required to gain entry to each course.   This often included the need for a minimum of a C in Maths or English.    I also remember working with students on their university applications, post A-Levels, where once again universities have entry requirements which students must achieve to gain entry.    Once again there might be a need for three C’s to get on their preferred university course.

The issue with the above is that a certain set of grades will gain entry and other lower grades will not result in entry.    It is easy to therefore perceive some grades as being passes and as a result the other remaining grades must be fails.     The education system as we know it is built on the ability to group students in terms of their ability, as described by their grades, and through this identify the opportunities which will be available.     As a result of this, independent of the U, or ungraded option, there will always be a perception as to some grades, those that easily permit entrance to the next level of education, being perceived as being passes and the remainder as being fails.

An alternative is to have qualifications which allow all students to pass.   From the headline point of view, improving from only two thirds of students passing to one hundred percent of students passing sounds logical and a success worth celebrating.   The issue is that it is unlikely to result in any real change.     FE colleges will still need to set requirements, meaning some passing grades will permit entry while others will not.    Universities will also set their requirements and again some grades will allow students to pass onto the next level whereas others will see their application fail to get them in.

The above alternative continues to be based on an education system where students pass through the system based on their age.    Given this there is a need to differentiate the students hence assigning grades to students based on their exams and coursework.

If we are to consider a system where all students are to achieve, we need to acknowledge the students learn at different rates.   We therefore need to allow students to progress through education at different rates.    The different rates of progress can therefore be used to differentiate students and identify when they are ready to progress to the next educational level.   Again this seems like an enviable solution in that students either complete or can be considered as having not yet completed or achieved.   They haven’t failed as the opportunity to complete always exists, being available for them at a time that suits their learning and rate of progressions.     The issue here is once again perception in that quickly there will become a view as to what the expected rate of progression will be.   This might be that by the age of 18 students will progress to university.   Instantly with this perception the media will be able to quote the percentage of students who proceed on or ahead of this target and therefore the percentage which do not.    Again we have those that progress as normally expected, those which pass, and those who progress at a slower rate, and therefore have not passed;  those which are perceived to have failed.

I don’t like the idea of one third of students failing.  It simply doesn’t feel right.   That said it is difficult to find an alternative solution that wont simply see us back in the same position a couple of years in the future.



Author: garyhenderson2014

Gary Henderson is currently the Director of IT in an Independent school in the UK. Prior to this he worked as the Head of Learning Technologies working with public and private schools across the Middle East. This includes leading the planning and development of IT within a number of new schools opening in the UAE. As a trained teacher with over 15 years working in education his experience includes UK state secondary schools, further education and higher education, as well as experience of various international schools teaching various curricula. This has led him to present at a number of educational conferences in the UK and Middle East.

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