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Gaming the exams system - ethically

by Terry Freedman on September 7, 2018

Now that this year’s GCSE and ‘A’ Level results are out, there are, predictably, the familiar cries of schools gaming the system. According to the press, their preferred methods are ‘off-rolling’ - taking poor-performing pupils off the school register - and entering pupils for qualifications said to be easier, such as IGCSEs.

It is not for us to comment on these claims, except to say that there could be quite legitimate reasons for taking such steps. For example, one of the IGCSEs available is ICT, which is no longer on offer at GCSE. If enough pupils wish to study ICT, as opposed to Computer Science, then why not accommodate them if you can? As for off-rolling, pupils may benefit from being transferred to a pupil referral unit; perhaps if they have been very disruptive, the remaining pupils will benefit by their absence. The point is, the media do not tend to look at the possible nuances of the kind of decisions we’ve been talking about.

However, if a school, Local Authority or Trust wishes to improve its academic results, how might it do so beyond the obvious solutions, such as monitoring attendance and punctuality, and responding quickly to unusual changes in a pupil’s results? Put starkly, are there any ethical and legitimate ways to ‘game the system’?

It turns out there are! By making a few adjustments, test scores (for example), can improve dramatically.

One thing the school might do is to improve conditions in the examination hall. Professor Stephen Heppell, reporting on his ‘Learnometer’ research in 2016, wrote that:

“The best practice for schools is to maintain light levels of over 500 lumens; even at 100 or 200 lumens, you’ll find that kids can’t concentrate and are unable to perform at their best. We’ve been into exam rooms where the lumen count is in double figures – I think the lowest I saw was 39. You just couldn’t work in there.

Worst of all is when half the kids in a room are in good light and the other half in bad light, because you get hugely unfair results.

During our observations we found that many school buildings use limited amounts of glass and have walls don’t reflect light very well – which isn’t helped when there’s a lot of paper on the glass in the form of posters and such.”

These results reflect Heppell’s classroom-based research too. So clearly, a relatively quick win would be to improve the lighting in the exam room, but it doesn’t stop there.

Other factors also come into play. Paying attention to air flow and humidity for example are likely to pay off. Without proper ventilation, carbon dioxide levels rise, and make everyone in the room start to feel tired.

It also seems that timing is of the essence. Unfortunately, exam boards rather than schools control the time of day at which examinations take place. However, schools could give their pupils a head start by tweaking the school timetable so that pupils engage in activities in the way most likely to lead to the best possible outcomes.

Obviously, different people are at their best at different times of the day, but Daniel Pink, in ‘When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing’, reports that the majority of people perform cognitive tasks better in the morning, and intuitive or creative work in the afternoons. Therefore, pupils might benefit from a timetable that puts English, STEM and other academic subjects in the mornings, and subjects such as PE, Art and Drama in the afternoons. Of course, this is a huge generalisation, and Pink helpfully provides ways to find out if an individual is a ‘lark’, an ‘owl or something in-between.That survey could be adapted to an online survey to find out where the majority of your pupils are on the spectrum. It’s worth thinking about, because Pink goes so far as to say that having to take tests at the ‘wrong’ time, that is in the afternoon, led to test scores equivalent to missing two weeks of the school year.

A more difficult thing to do as far as timing is concerned is to start later in the morning, as several studies have found that young people, especially teenagers, are not at their best first thing in the morning. Nevertheless, given that a study published in April 2018 showed that even very small delays to the start of the school day resulted in pupils having greater alertness and well-being. Therefore, this is surely a route worth considering.

Interestingly, studies have shown that providing people with a break in the afternoon before taking a test improves their results.

How might you make use of these kind of research insights? In The value of big data we looked at how the vast amount of data being generated by a school every day might be analysed in order to spot trends and correlations. Perhaps data such as time of day and location could be factored in. If you discover, for instance, that test scores or behaviour are always worse in room 31 than in  other rooms, it could just be that the lighting in that room isn’t conducive to concentration, or that the ventilation is poor. You might discover that test scores and behaviour are indeed better in the mornings than the afternoons.

In other words, you may be able to improve all kinds of outcomes by taking a few relatively simple steps.