Stretch and challenge

In a recent Guardian article, Mike Baker suggests the reintroduction of norm-referencing for ranking exam students: this is, after all, how we judge ‘the best restaurants, the swankiest hotels, the top football teams, the fastest athletes’. I suspect he might be mistaken if he thinks rank order in those named cases can be happily compared to each other, let alone made to correspond to the way norm-referencing would differentiate between students who have just taken an exam; and I think he is mistaken in his subsequent view that norm-referencing would undermine the obsession with targets. But no matter: I want to draw attention to his assumption that norm-referencing would restore public confidence in standards.


Here, standards is inseparable from exclusion; and the exam system is dysfunctional because too many students are avoiding exclusion through exam failure. Baker mentions in passing that norm-referencing ‘could prove demoralising’ for students who now have to settle for low grades, or even no grade at all, although he fails to point out that, previously, 30% of candidates automatically failed an exam: one might easily imagine the response from those middle-class parents of students who have benefited from the expansion of higher education.


In the Robbins Report (1963; available here) we find the following:


… we have assumed as an axiom that courses of higher education should be available for all those who are qualified by ability and attainment to pursue them and who wish to do so. (8)


In the early-1960s, of course, very few students took A-Levels and had the opportunity to become ‘qualified by ability and attainment’, that is, achieve two passes. Further, that minority would become smaller once the 30% who automatically failed each exam were excluded. Nonetheless, the above quotation from Robbins invokes a principle, that higher education should be inclusive; and the role of the A-Level, in those circumstances, would be to confirm the suitability of candidates, not justify their exclusion. That an elitist system managed effectively to exclude so many students from participation might be ignored, which meant that the A-Level, as a qualification – as opposed to certification – was never brought into question. Only in the 1990s would this arrangement be threatened by increasing numbers of A-Level students achieving passes when norm-referencing was replaced by criterion-referencing and the apparent failure to differentiate by ranking students against each other as Baker suggests.


Yet those who doubt that the A-Level system still differentiates effectively should consider the following references. In 1996, Dearing’s Review of Qualifications for 16-19 Year Olds, from the outset, insisted that ‘our most able pupils [should be] stretched and rewarded for excellence’ (1). Implicitly, that reward is tied to the construction of another group of less able or even least able students. Then, 14-19 Education and Skills (2005), the white paper response to the Tomlinson Report, contained the following paragraph:


In 2004, around 3.5% of the age cohort achieved 3 or more A-grades at A-Level. We believe that there is more that we can do to stretch and challenge our brightest students. We also want to help universities to differentiate between the highest performing candidates. (63)


In the space of a few lines, then, we find (i) recognition that a small minority of students achieve the highest grades for a three-subject combination; then (ii) the claim that we still need to ‘stretch and challenge’ the members of this elite; and then (iii) the claim that universities still find it difficult to differentiate between so few students.


One might point out that a system allowing no more than ‘3.5% of the age cohort’ to achieve so well already provides ‘stretch and challenge’. Further, given that observation, the final sentence does rather beg the question: why is it necessary that universities differentiate quite so rigorously? Why are those responsible for admissions so concerned to identify the best student?

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