Comparability and Examination Performance: Technical and Social Approaches to Its Study

Benson, Ann Christine (2009). Comparability and Examination Performance: Technical and Social Approaches to Its Study. PhD thesis The Open University.



This thesis is concerned with examination comparability and the assumption that achieved grades in GCSE examinations have common currency across subjects.

Technical treatments commonly used to investigate examination comparability are discussed along with the assumptions upon which they are based and their limitations. A variety of technical treatments, taking into account population sampling, tiering, coursework and cognitive skill demands, are used to investigate comparability for GCSE science results from Welsh and English examining groups. Examination comparability is shown to be undermined by fluctuations in relative ‘difficulty’ across time, different correlations between subjects, curriculum changes, and sub-group effects.

Interviews with science teachers are then related to the technical findings to examine schools’, departments’ and individuals’ responses to national assessment structures and practices and how these mediate ‘gradeness’. The interviews’ initial focus on teachers’ tier entry decisions reveals that their judgements about students are constituted through interaction between their beliefs about mind, subjects and gendered behaviours amongst others, departmental and school practices, and wider social influences to do with national assessment and examining group policies and practices.

The interviews show how structures and beliefs shape arena practices and teachers’ practice, the consequences for students’ access to science, and the consequent validity of assessments of their science ‘achievements’. The allocation of students to ability groups as they enter secondary school and the interactions between these groups and KS3 SAT tier allocation effectively ‘lock’ students on to an assessment pathway from Year 7 - a pathway which school structures make it almost impossible to break away from. The findings show how school practices and individual practice can disrupt or compound this and the consequences for students’ access to learning opportunities, which, the thesis argues, is a major source of invalidity in assessment that comparability studies cannot begin to take account of.

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