Tougher Exams Are Bad News For Disadvantaged Students

Forbes 1 week ago
UK School Pupils Receive Their GCSE Results
GCSE results can be crucial for young people's future prospects (Photo by Pete Summers/Getty Images)

Tougher exams are widening the attainment gap between rich and poor students, according to a new study.

Reforms aiming to make exams more difficult have seen disadvantaged students move further behind their classmates, making them less likely to get either a top grade or a ‘pass’ grade.

The changes were brought in by the former U.K. Education Secretary Michael Gove, amid concerns that public exams taken by 15 and 16-year-old students in England lacked rigor and that it was too easy to get top grades.

Revised curricula featured more challenging material, there was a shift from assessing coursework to a focus on final exams, and a new grading system increased differentiation at the top grades.

Instead of receiving a grade from A* to G, students would be graded from 9 to 1, with 9 the top grade, with students taking the new exams from 2017 onwards.

But new analysis shows that the gap between disadvantaged students and their more advantaged classmates has widened since the reforms were introduced.

While 2% of disadvantaged students got the top A* grade under the previous regimen, just 1% are getting grade 9, according to research published today by the Sutton Trust, a charity dedicated to improving social mobility through education.

Among non-disadvantaged students, the drop in those getting the top grade was smaller, from 8% to 5%.

Lower down the grades, non-disadvantaged students were 1.63 times more likely to get a 5 or above, seen as a ‘strong pass’, compared with 1.42 times more likely to get a C, the broad equivalent under the previous system.

Across nine subjects, test scores for disadvantaged students fell by a quarter of a grade, compared with their more advantaged classmates, taking school factors and student characteristics into account.

Although the exams - the GCSE (General Certificate of Secondary Education) - are no longer seen as school leaving certificate with most students staying in education until they are 18, they are still crucial in determining which post-16 options are available.

They are also important in the job market, making them a pivotal point in a young person’s education.

Although the impact on the attainment gap is not large, the Sutton Trust said that signs of it widening should act as a warning signal.

‘The overall result is clear: we find a statistically well-determined effect, small but going in the direction of further disadvantaging the disadvantaged,’ the report’s co-authors, Simon Burgess of Bristol University and Dave Thomson, of education data non-profit FFT.

‘So far at least, and although it could be argued that positive effects may take longer to come through, the GCSE reforms have widened the attainment gap as young people move into the labour market or on to further study.’

Trust chief executive James Turner added: ‘While the motivation behind the 2015 reforms was to drive up standards, there were concerns that the changes could come at the expense of the poorest pupils.’

‘Our research tells us that the changes have likely had a small impact on the attainment gap, with disadvantaged pupils losing out by about a quarter of a grade across 9 subjects. It will be important that the government monitors carefully the long-term impact that the reforms may have.’

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