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Equality of Opportunity and the Exam System

Written by Gareth Young on . Posted in Our blog

I have been pondering inequality lately and the challenges we have as a society in giving our young people the same chance in life.

Every study says that these inequalities are built in at an incredibly early age and despite years of effort to do something about them we, as a society, still have to accept that where you are born and who you are born to has a major impact on the opportunities you will get in life. These inequalities are reflected through school and in the grades and qualifications that students from different backgrounds are able to access.

So, what is to be done?

I have one idea – and whilst I recognise that this may cause some readers to choke on their morning cornflakes I hope that you will keep reading to the end where I genuinely believe that the compromise I propose is something we as a society should consider.

My proposal is to do move away from purely absolute exam grades and add to them some relative grading.

To explain further:

At the moment all exams are marked and the grade boundaries set by the exam board. Regardless of who you are the mark you receive in your exam will be the only determinant of the grade you get. This means that the results of Gareth in Morden are directly comparable with the results of Glen in Westminster.

This method is obviously ‘fair’. Everyone is treated the same regardless of background, schooling or even age and there is an impartial judgement of the individuals ability provided by the examination.

However, my argument is that in many ways this isn’t really ‘fair’.

If you’re a kid who goes to a bad school with a terrible English teacher then it is likely that your English result will be worse than if you went to a good school and had a great English teacher. Likewise, if you come from a family living in temporary accommodation or an overcrowded property you are less likely to perform well in the ‘impartial’ exam than someone in a permanent house with their own bedroom.

An alternative would be to recognise this and to provide relative grades, reflecting not everything about your background but at least recognising that schools and the students studying at them are very different to each other.

So, if your exam has 5 grades, A-E (yes, I know this is touchingly old-fashioned but it’s easier maths!) then instead of there being a defined pass mark the grades would be handed out as follows:

Top 20% in your school get an A, the next 20% get a B and so on with the bottom 20% getting an E.

In this model exam grades are not giving potential employers an absolute sense of your ability but a relative sense of how you performed in that exam against your direct contemporaries.

Whilst we pretend that exams are tests of absolute knowledge at the age of 16 in many cases they are as much about testing potential for work and for college and university. I genuinely don’t believe that children from the best backgrounds are inherently cleverer than those from disadvantaged backgrounds and yet exam grades would seem to suggest that is the case. As such, perhaps knowing the relative ability of someone is far more useful to a potential employer or as a measure of their potential when they reach the next stage of education.

This would also prevent the exam system from being a means of protecting the position of the middle-classes. Exams can be gamed and those with the money, top schools and ability to support their children can ensure even an average student gets good grades - an opportunity not available for all.

Obviously, if we were to introduce relative exam grades on their own this would be a policy with significant downsides:

1)    Whilst exams are bad signifiers, in that they don’t do a perfect job of identifying the talent and potential of people, they are good at preparing people for further education and often employment. There is a risk that people coming into our universities would require a lot more work to succeed there if all they had achieved was relative success. Likewise, industry often talks of the lack of skills from young people leaving school. This could make it worse by giving people grades that aren’t linked to absolute skills and instead to potential.

2)    Parents would seek to game the system – having middle class flight towards the roughest neighbourhoods in the UK just so they can top the class is probably not the worst thing in the world but if this exam system was imposed people would exit the system and look for an alternative – perhaps an international qualification to bridge the gap.

3)    Schools would lose a key measure of success and it would become more difficult to measure the achievement of teachers – if every school received 20% As the exam league table would have a lot less meaning.

These downsides are real and are the reason I would never actually propose relative grading on it's own. However, with a slight adjustment I believe relative marking could work really well and be acceptable to all. The wrinkle is as follows:

I would keep the current exam results but mandate a second relative score to accompany it.

Thus, every exam would come with two scores written together, the first the absolute grade and the second the relative grade. For example, a student could receive a:

AA (Top 20% score on the exam, top 20% in the school)

AC (Top 20% score on the exam, middle 20% in the school)

CA (Middle 20% score on the exam, top 20% in the school)

Etc etc

These grades would tell us far more about an individual than the current grades do and with more information comes more chances for people to use those grades when recruiting and thinking about who goes to university or college or is employed. Some would choose only to recruit on absolute terms and that would be fine but some employers would be interested in the relative score as well and they would have that information and be able to use it as they chose.

Even the fiercest opponents of relativism or dumbing down might find it difficult to argue that providing more information is not helpful when judging our young people, especially when this information is directly related to their life chances.

I imagine many people won't like my grading plan, and I recognise it is far from the full answer to equality of opportunity but any small adjustment that we can introduce that would help ameliorate the inherent disadvantage many children face by dint of birth should be tried.

I’d love to hear what people think of it.

Posted: 1 year 10 months ago by Glen #1287
Glen's Avatar
I have to say, as I read through this I started thinking of the challenges you mention; that it doesn't reward good teaching as much as split people more efficiently and transparently against their peers.

However, I really like the idea of a double grade. It retains the comparable data across different areas, but also adds in data to compare against contemporaries that does nothing but add richness to the information provided.

The only hindrance may be that it could be used to determine the background of a young person/applicant fairly easily. An AD grade would show that they went to a very good school (after all, if 60% of their peers scored more highly than them then they must have done), while a DA score would indicate they received lower levels of education than others.

Would love to work through some of the permutations and implications though. This simple change would make things very interesting indeed.

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