Has public confidence in exam integrity been shaken?

28/11/17

Headlines hit the papers over the summer when it was leaked to the press that teachers in some leading independent schools such as Eton College had disclosed examination questions to students prior to assessment. The Education Committee assembled to ask expert witnesses to discuss malpractice within the examinations system. 

Part one

Witnesses:

  • Barnaby Lenon, Chair, Independent Schools Council
  • Simon Henderson, Headmaster, Eton College
  • Michael O'Sullivan, Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment International Education.

How widespread is exam malpractice?

Chair of the Education Committee Robert Halfon opened by asking for figures about the number of cases of exam malpractice reported by whistleblowers in the last ten years. Michael O'Sullivan said that for the UK, there was a general slight upward trend in proven cases of maladministration. Halfon expressed concern that this demonstrated that safeguards were not working, but O’Sullivan said that the increase was in line with the greater number of students taking particular examinations. 

What steps are being taken to prevent malpractice?

Robert Halfon suggested that if the same teachers are setting and teaching exams, the same problem could happen again. He asked if teachers should set the exams in the subjects that they teach.

Michael O’Sullivan suggested that there are many types of inadmissible behaviour by candidates and examiners. Strengthening supervision and training for examiners will help.

Barnaby Lenon said that teachers are encouraged to be exam setters because they know more than anyone else the syllabus, how long it takes to teach it, and pupil capabilities.

Why aren’t parents informed?

O’Sullivan said that where malpractice was found, they wrote to schools so that they could inform parents, but because there are severe consequences for teachers involved in malpractice, revealing the identities of those subject to investigation could have negative consequences, especially because some allegations are unsubstantiated. In general, it seems that efforts are made to inform parents that malpractice has occurred within the school once an investigation confirming it has been completed.

Detection of malpractice

O’Sullivan said it works by a combination of deterring and detecting. All schools are subject to unannounced visits by independent inspectors who look for evidence of opened confidential materials, and ensure that exams are properly supervised. They also perform a statistical assessment of exam papers for random schools, looking for suspicious irregularities.

Was malpractice at Eton going on for some times?

Head teacher Simon Henderson said that there was no evidence malpractice had occurred previously. He stated that once it was identified, it was dealt with thoroughly three weeks before the news was in the public domain, with the full cooperation of the school.

Is malpractice systemic in the independent examination system?

The question was asked by Thelma Walker MP. Lenon responded that malpractice is not systemic, and where found, it is effectively dealt with. He added that the threat to integrity has decreased through reform, when there was a reduction in teacher-assessed coursework. Halfon raised the issue that recent whistleblowers had gone to the Daily Telegraph, who broke the story, and that exam cheating spread on social media between schools. Henderson said in the instance of Eton College, teachers are aware it constitutes gross misconduct and grounds for dismissal, and that teachers will report their colleagues if they believe they are involved in malpractice. Heads take the issue seriously and fully cooperate with examination board enquiries. They reported the teacher to the NCTL (National College for Teaching and Leadership), he is not currently working in the profession. Parents were informed of what had happened the day after he was dismissed.

Parents challenging examination results and asking for remarks

Questions were asked by William Wragg MP and others about requests to remark exams, and because of the fee involved where the grade is not improved, whether or not this gives higher-income parents an advantage.

Lenon said that middle class educated parents know more about the system, and are more likely to have children needing particular grades to get into university, which is why their children’s papers may be more likely to be put forward for remarking. Henderson added that exam candidates themselves must authorise a request to remark, and that it is important that, where parents and teachers feel marking may have been imprecise, they may exercise their right to request re-evaluation. The consensus was that, although the fee for remarking may disadvantage some, there has to be a disincentive for free remarks, because otherwise the volume of requests would become unmanageable and the quality of assessment would be driven down by pressures of time and high workload.

[The question of parents paying to have their child’s exams remarked also arose in the second part of the meeting, where it was suggested that although there is no up-front charge, it’s a gamble because grades can go down or stay the same, which incurs a fee, so for parents who can’t afford the risk of not having their child receive a better grade, there is an in-built disadvantage. Because schools have to make the request for a remark and so are the initial recipients of any fee, there isn’t currently data on the proportion of schools that pass those fees on to individual parents.]

How do teachers benefit from becoming examiners?

There is a financial incentive which averages around £20 per hour, but O’Sullivan suggested that the non-financial benefits are paramount, with peer recognition, a better understanding of their profession with greater knowledge, skills and understanding outweighing the additional pressures on their time and personal lives. Teachers also feel they are contributing to the public good.

Are parents aware which teachers are setting which exams?

Henderson said that this information is not disclosed to parents or to pupils as to do so would be to create additional risk. Teachers are expected to maintain confidentiality.

Should examiners write for multiple tests, only one of which will be provided to candidates, to help eradicate malpractice?

Henderson found Halfon’s idea “worth serious consideration”. O’Sullivan confirmed it was something they were considering. It would, however, result in more exams in existence before being used, and as such, it would be impossible to entirely remove the risk involved with the number of professionals knowing the content of exams, but it would help reduce it.

How many pupils are on assisted places within the independent sector?

Halfon brought the first part to a close with a question on social mobility. Lenon and Henderson provides statistics to demonstrate that independent schools were providing bursaries or financial support to a proportion of pupils who would otherwise be eligible for free school meals.

Part Two

Witnesses:

  • Michael Turner, Director General, Joint Council for Qualifications
  • Professor Jo-Anne Baird, Director of the Department of Education, Oxford University
  • Dr Michelle Meadows, Executive Director for Strategy, Risk and Research, Ofqual.

What is the biggest challenge to the integrity of the exam system?

Dr Michelle Meadows nominated coursework, as it is non-exam assessment, and said that where malpractice is found it must be dealt with. Michael Turner pointed to the 5,000 examiners who are involved in marking that require public confidence. Professor Jo-Anne Baird said that other countries have far greater concerns around malpractice which is why instances are so shocking when they occur. She went on to mention the accountability pressure on teachers from senior management and parents, though the vast majority act with integrity.

Are exams being marked accurately?

Baird confirmed that Ofqual has a reliability programme to look into that question. Multiple-choice and other machine-marking options eradicate error, but introducing a human to assess reduces reliability. Some disciplines are notoriously harder to mark accurately than others, and subjectivity creeps in, especially in arts subjects. Turner was of the view that on the whole, papers are marked very accurately since less than 1% of GCSE and A-level papers changed their grade last year, though in an ideal world the figure would be 0%. Meadows said that there is pressure to get the marking right the first time. She said that while the review appeal system was essential, marks should only be changes because of examiner error, not through giving candidates the benefit of the doubt in areas of subjectivity, so as not to benefit schools who request greater numbers of reassessments.

What further safeguards are needed to prevent malpractice?

Meadows confirmed that Ofqual is getting to the end of their review phase on teachers in exam writing, and that there are huge advantages to involving teachers. She said that an option being considered, but unlikely to be implemented, is that teachers are not allowed to teach the specification for which they are writing exam questions. Another option is that teachers can be involved and teach the specification they’re writing for, but they won’t know for sure when the papers they have contributed to will come up. That option would drive up costs, so the impact on the system needs to be discovered. Turner said that there were 6,500 inspections looking at malpractice in schools every year, and that teachers are in a good position to be question setters because they both know the subject and fear the sanctions if malpractice is discovered.

Check out the Education Committee’s inquiry into examination integrity.