What purpose are exams supposed to be fit for, Mr Gove?
I'm beginning to feel that we (... ok the media, and various other organs of public opinion) are beginning to get as fixated on exams as we are already are on prisons. Any time we find something else we dont like, we reach for a prison term to punish its perpetrators -- no matter how inappropriate.
Now with kids, almost all we seem to get really worked up about it how we examine them. It's not an exact parallel of course. It's easy enough to sound off about standards and how we ought to test and re-test the little buggers. But luckily an awful lot of people in the country have children, and watching what they go through tends to dampen the enthusiasm for wall to wall exams. None the less almost everyone can get worked up by grade boundaries now, modular systems and whatever. (Here's a bit of a background from Michael Gove himself from this morning's Today Programme; and here is the official data on what it takes to get an A* at A level.)
I have to say that I have some sympathy with Michael Gove's dislike of modules and course work (with a helping hand from the middle class mum and dad) and retakes at will. But I can also remember the kind of rhetoric (and it was by no means stupid) that brought to an end the whole idea of sudden death exams -- the idea that everything hung on what you did in 3 hours after several years work.
Anyone my age will remember this too. The argument went that a kid might have done brilliantly through the year then entirely cocked up the three hour exam (teenagers for God's sake). Was that fair? Of course it wasn't. There was also the worry that girls performed less well in such exams than boys. I don't know if that was true, but it was certainly one plausible reason for moving towards different methods of testing.
The odd thing is that most universities are still travelling in the opposite direction to Mr Gove. For all kinds of reasons (including gender, but also the question of what skills we think we want to test) we are moving away from the trad 3 hour exam, towards all kinds of methods of "alternative assessment" (dissertations, portfolio of essays, open book exams, etc etc).
I'm not sure that any of these methods of assessment are "fair". In fact the worst thing is probably to imagine that there really IS a fair method of testing that we just have to find or devise. There are pluses and minuses in every system, and we delude ourselves to think anything else. Maybe in fact a bit of a mixture evens things out.
But the big question is what we think we are setting these exams FOR. And that question is not looked at as often as it should be. It seems to me that we are trying to do far to much with a single set of exams (fair or not): we're trying to make sure that all kids leave school with a basic set of skills, we're trying to check up on whether schools are doing their job, and we're trying to establish a gateway for further education. I dont see how one system can do all those things "fairly".
I havent got an answer here. But I do know that the real test of an education system is not what the kids do in their school years (almost every teacher in the land can teach for the exam if they choose too, and we can all congratulate ourselves on rising standards); but it's what they are doing 10, 20, 30 years later. And it's much harder to track that.
One thing I am pretty sure about is that Michael Gove doesnt know the answer to this any more than any of us do. It's just that he is in a position to impose his own "bright" ideas.