Wednesday, 23 August 2017

GCSE results: academic success cannot be measured by grades alone

Today sees thousands of students who study in UK curriculum schools in the UAE receiving their GCSE results. Like many others, this year I am an anxious parent, hoping that my sixteen year-old has got the best possible set exam results that will allow him to progress to the sixth form on a path that I hope will take him to university and, from there, on into successful and fulfilled employment. Amid the anxiety and relief, the questions nagging at the back of many parents’ minds on results’ day are ‘Did my child get the best possible grades that he could have?’ and, given the amount we invest in our children’s education in the UAE, ‘Has the school done a good job?”
As parents and teachers we know that not all children are the same. Some have a greater aptitude for academic studies than others; for some work comes easy - for others it is hard; some make a huge effort – others are lazy or disengaged. For this reason, academic success cannot simply be measured by the final grades: a gifted student who achieves 10 A grades may have under-performed, whereas a less gifted student may well have fulfilled her potential and achieved 5 Bs and 3Cs. The true measure of performance in any examination is not raw results, rather we should judge our children’s performance in relation to their ability. The question is how do we decide whether or not a student has fulfilled his or her potential?
One important way of evaluating this is by looking at a measure of “Value Added”. The Durham University Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring (CEM) has been researching student performance for over thirty years. Over this time, millions of students have been tested at the start of their secondary schooling (aged 11) and their performances monitored at GCSE (aged 16). These data allow CEM to define with a high degree of accuracy what grade a student of a given baseline score is most likely to get in their GCSE in a given subject. This is not to say that all students of the same ability get the same results: the CEM data set is able to outline the percentage chance of a student of a given ability will achieve. For example, 2% of students with a given baseline score might have a got an ‘E’ in French GCSE, 8% got a ‘D’, 21% got a ‘C’, 29% got a ‘B’, 26% got an ‘A’, and 13% got an ‘A*’. In this case the ‘most likely grade’ is a ‘B’. Thus if a student of this ability gets an ‘A’ or an ‘A*’, it might be said that he or she has exceeded expectations; whereas if the student gets below a B grade, he or she has fallen short of expectations.
Value-added is also a useful measure of evaluating schools, departments and even teachers. A school, department or teacher who consistently has students who are exceeding expectations is adding value and is doing a great job; conversely a school, department or teacher whose students consistently fall short of expectations indicates the urgent need for improvement. Savvy parents looking for a secondary school, would be well advised to ask for the schools’ value added scores, rather than just their raw GCSE results – they can be far more telling.
At JESS, we use CEM baseline data to set aspirational targets for students (and staff). These targets are published to parents and we report on the student’s performance in a given subject against these targets.
Results days are always anxious times for all concerned. It usually is a time for celebration, as well as a time for relief. When your child brings you the result slip, don’t forget that their greatest achievement is sometimes the hard-fought ‘C’ grade in the subject that they find most difficult. Good luck!

A version of this article was published in online version of The National.

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