Thursday, October 30, 2008

British high school exams COULD be dumbed down unless watchdog steps in

What? Dumbed down any further?

Standards in GCSEs and A levels risk being dumbed down unless the new independent examinations watchdog is given statutory powers to force exam boards to maintain them, the Government has been warned.

In a highly unusual intervention into the debate about exam standards, Mike Cresswell, director-general of AQA, Britain's biggest exam board, has broken ranks with its rivals. In an interview with The Times, he has given warning that public confidence in the quality of GCSE and A level qualifications cannot be maintained unless the new exams watchdog, Ofqual, has sufficient muscle to prevent exam boards lowering their standards.

Ofqual was created by Gordon Brown and made independent from government precisely to put an end to the debate about the dumbing down of public examinations and to ensure that there could be no suspicion of government pressure on exam boards to set standards at particular levels. But Dr Cresswell believes there is a "major omission" from the proposals for Ofqual's powers. While it is empowered to force exam boards to follow certain procedures in the way they set and mark exams, it has no powers over what level they set standards at.

"Ofqual needs to be given an explicit statutory power to enable it, if necessary, to direct an awarding body to set standards at a particular level," Dr Cresswell said. "It needs to have this power so that it can give credible public assurance that standards are comparable between awarding bodies and maintained over time." Without statutory powers of intervention, Ofqual would be left to the mercy of exam boards, he added. "A regulator who is there to uphold public confidence in standards can't be in a position where it has to negotiate with the exam boards over standards."

Dr Cresswell added: "The awarding bodies compete for entries. They don't compete on standards. If Ofqual had this power [to enforce standards], it would make it much more difficult for that to ever begin."

The main exam boards work closely together in developing qualifications, but there is a tension in their relationship, as they are competing with each other within a finite but lucrative market place. Schools and colleges pay about 400 pounds million a year in fees to exam boards. Mr Cresswell's warning comes after a disagreement this summer between England's three exam boards, which set their own GCSE and A-level papers, about standards in the new GCSE single science exam. The three boards met in August to discuss grade boundaries. They failed to come to an agreement over the mark needed to get a C, officially a good pass. One of AQA's rival boards awarded Cs in one paper to pupils who got only 20 per cent of questions correct and would not back down from this position. Negotiations between the boards broke down.

AQA was eventually persuaded by Ofqual to reduce its own grade boundaries to bring it into line with the other boards, even though it did not think this sufficient to maintain standards. Dr Cresswell agreed to the move "under protest" because he did not want to disadvantage the half-million pupils who had taken his board's science exam. "Plainly, we couldn't possibly have a situation where children doing our exam would be judged against harsher standards than children doing other boards," he said.

Yesterday was the last day for submissions on what monitoring and enforcement powers Ofqual should have. Dr Cresswell has written to the Government to express his concerns and to request a meeting with Jim Knight, the Schools Minister.


Reagan Didn't Graduate from Harvard

One of the first attacks launched at Governor Sarah Palin when she was announced as Senator John McCain's running mate was that she was not smart enough to be one step away from the presidency. Why? Because she doesn't have an Ivy League education. Rather than criticizing her position on taxes, energy independence or the War in Iraq, college students in particular focus on her University of Idaho degree. It has become a rallying cry for my fellow students at schools ranked better than the University of Idaho and flung as an insult into heated debates.

These same students conveniently forget that after graduating from the University of Delaware, Senator Joe Biden went on to graduate 76th in a class of 85 from Syracuse University College of Law where he infamously plagiarized a law review article for one of his papers. They also forget that Senator Barack Obama attended Occidental College in Los Angeles before Columbia University.

Too many people are resorting to this elementary school tactic of calling someone stupid as a trump card during election discussions. After listening to a fellow student mock Gov. Palin's education, I decided to test her theory using the presidency, since that is the position for which these students claim she is not qualified.

Is a degree from a top American college a prerequisite to becoming a successful president? No. Abraham Lincoln led our country through one of its most tumultuous times and is admired as one of our best presidents. He did not even go to college. He is not alone. Eight American presidents did not earn a college degree, Andrew Jackson, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland and Harry Truman. Almost 20% of our presidents have not graduated from college.

One of our best presidents of the 20th century graduated from a small school in Illinois, Eureka College, which most Americans probably have never heard of. Eureka College, which currently has an enrollment of about 600 students, did not make the Princeton Review's 2009 Best 368 Colleges.

Furthermore, even some presidents who have earned degrees from top schools have been criticized as being among the worst presidents in American history.

Many liberals decry George W. Bush as the worst president in the last 50 years. Where did he earn his undergraduate degree? Yale. On the flip side, many conservatives hold a similarly negative view of Jimmy Carter. Where did he graduate? The U.S. Naval Academy. Yale and the U.S. Naval Academy are two of the top institutions of higher learning in the United States.

There is no specific educational pedigree that is determinative of the success or popularity of an American president or vice president. Our past presidents and vice presidents have earned degrees from a wide range of schools. The most popular schools for presidents include Harvard with five, William and Mary with four, Yale with three and Princeton and the Military Academy with two each. Among others, past presidents have attended Dickinson College, Union College and Miami University.

The best education is not only obtained from classroom lectures. Much can be gained from independent study and a true love of learning. In an October 22nd People Magazine interview, Gov. Palin said, "I'm a voracious reader, always have been. I appreciate a lot of information. I think that comes from growing up in a family of schoolteachers also where reading and seizing educational opportunities was top on my parents' agenda. That was instilled in me."

Besides having a deep philosophical understanding of ideas, it is also important that one has tested those ideas in practice, learning how to implement the ideas effectively. Maybe this is difficult for my fellow students to understand as they have had little opportunity to put their ideas in practice. But Gov. Palin has done that. She has made spending decisions. She has stood up to corruption. She has vetoed bills.

Too many students are ignoring the real differences between the candidates on the economy, health care and foreign policy, and resorting to personal attacks. In one way this is a victory for Gov. Palin as they concede issue appeals. But at the same time, it is deeply problematic that students are falling for the empty insults and rhetoric.


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