According to the head of the leading exam board in England testifying before members of Parliament, the incentives put in place by the new testing system could encourage teachers to artificially inflate student scores. New measures put into place by the Coalition government link teacher performance to student test results, which means that teachers are under increased pressure to show improved scores — which they say is exactly the environment ripe for a cheating scandal.
AQA exam board's chief executive Andrew Hall said he didn't think that cheating was to blame for this summer's GCSE English exam scandal, but said that the way incentives were set up made it difficult to assess their impartiality when assigning marks. This lack of impartiality and the fact that teachers had direct control over 60% of the final exam mark is what led the exam boards to toughen the grade boundaries of the exam to the outrage of the students who felt that they had been lowballed.
The parliamentary hearing followed a high court ruling last month against an alliance of pupils, unions, schools and councils who alleged that the government's exam regulator, Ofqual, and the exam boards Edexcel and AQA had unfairly moved the boundary, in a last-minute "statistical fix" to counter exam grade inflation.
The bar was raised higher than for pupils who submitted papers in the earlier January marking round and some pupils claim they missed out on sixth-form places because of the change.
Statistical analysis of the exam results showed that teacher judgment played an outsized role in final grade assignments according to Hall's testimony. He acceded to the suggestion made by the committee chairman Graham Stuart that when a mere two points made the difference between a lower and a higher final grade, the temptation to find them would be a very difficult one for a teacher to resist.
Ziggy Liaquat, the managing director of the exam board Edexcel, also said his exam board, which accounted for 10% of English GCSEsassessed last year, had observed inaccurate marking by teachers.
"We adjusted downwards 8% and we adjusted upwards 5% so there was inaccurate marking both ways," he said. He added the evidence did not yet show teachers had pushed marks deliberately to cross grade boundaries.
Mark Dawe, who headed the exam board OCR, was the only one testifying who said that his board didn't find evidence of overmarking in the exam papers it reviewed.
Graham isn't the first to observe that the culture of high-stakes testing is a breeding ground for cheating. In the fall of last year, Kim Dancy of The Georgetown Public Policy Review looked at the issue in detail, concluding that when jobs and promotions hinge on test results, artificial grade inflation inevitably follows – the temptation being too much for administrators and teachers to overcome.
And so it proved. The first major standardized-test related cheating scandal concerned a round of testing in Atlanta public schools in 2009. Similar allegations about several other districts, from Los Angeles to Brooklyn rapidly surfaced. In some cases, it wasn't even the cheating that made headlines, but the horrible pressure applied to those who refused to go along. As lurid as these stories are, they point to a pervasive problem that is growing and spreading in K-12 education.