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The Bell-Curve Cage: Something must break.

Screen Shot 2017-03-26 at 11.19.09

Bell curve: Ellen Wexler/The Flat Hat. Composite: teacherhead.

I keep going on about this but at some point, something’s going to break.

Ever since Michael Gove and Ofqual – more or less independently – decided, reasonably and sensibly, to bring an end to grade inflation around 2010, taking effect from 2013, we’ve been on a collision course with our embedded, natural and reasonable desire for continual improvement.

Here’s the thing.  If you’re using the same mechanisms – ie our national examinations – to measure both improvement and standards, you’re stuffed. You can’t keep a firm hold on standards with a bell curve cage and, simultaneously proclaim improvement.  You can’t maintain a zero sum and also expect all students and schools to show improvement. There’s no conspiracy of low expectations here; it’s just literally impossible.

Read this post:  Assessment, standards and the bell curve if you want to explore the notion that standards are ever absolute. They’re not.

Read this post  – Nicky Morgan vs the Bell Curve – if you want to see how wound up someone can get by the political abuse of the concept of ‘average’.

Read this post about the zero-sum era we’re now in if you want to explore whether that’s really what’s happening. It is.

The problem is that we keep pretending this isn’t our reality. Grades 1-4 are not Good GCSEs even though ~40% must get those grades in our system.  I’m tired of the limited language of average/below average when it is explicitly accompanied by damning judgements for all those who fall below the average line.  The massive pressure to improve is in a head-on car-crash collision with the pressure to keep standards tight; everyone MUST improve but not everyone is allowed to

 All over the middle ground, the territory of grades 3-5, the C/D borderline, random forces will make or break life chances – alongside the profiles of schools where those students dominate. 

Something must break. And it will. It’s already started. 

Discussion

10 thoughts on “The Bell-Curve Cage: Something must break.

  1. Your thesis would be valid in one dimension but, having just watched a crane competition event it is clear that all cannot be expert at all. Indeed nor is expertise a constant with time; my rubik cube solution time is well at the left of average now.

    Like

    Posted by paulmartin42 | March 26, 2017, 12:09 pm
  2. Agreed. Maybe our politicians need to brush up on their numeracy skills. Not everything that fits in a box is a box. 0.001% on a spreadsheet could be 100% a person’s life. http://zenpencils.com/comic/albert-einstein-everybody-is-a-genius/ Whose standing is really being tested ?

    Like

    Posted by keyableit | March 26, 2017, 2:00 pm
  3. Hi Tom, enjoyed this, as usual. Am I right in thinking that the national reference test is intended to allow the bell curve to be broken (i.e. more higher grades to be awarded) if it is felt that a particular cohort has made genuine gains in learning? Does this provide a solution to the predicament you describe?

    Is there also something in the point that when we look at English or Maths work being produced by students gaining lower grades e.g. new grades 1-3, or old grades D-G, we can’t honestly say that the work is of a particularly good standard. So although the predicament you describe would be unjust if students producing decent work weren’t getting decent grades, aren’t we a long way from that?

    Genuinely grappling with this so keen for any thoughts! Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    Posted by steveadcock81 | March 26, 2017, 4:24 pm
    • The reference tests are there in the background. They’ll allow increments of less than 1% year on year if they suggest that is warranted. However, that means, on average a school going up by 5% needs another school to go down by 4%. Sure, lower grades are lower – but we denigrate lower grades at our peril. People pass Grade 1 piano; it’s an achievement; they don’t fail Grade 5. Of course higher grades are better but we need to recognise that it’s a contest. Not every school can be average and we need to be very careful to assume every school can improve their GCSE results in any given subject; they can’t. Only six teams can be ‘top six’ in the Premier League; it’s the same thing.

      Like

      Posted by Tom Sherrington | March 26, 2017, 4:34 pm
  4. Bell curves and continual (student) improvement are two different things. Students can improve without the bell curve shifting. Instead of mark inflation we would have mark deflation. Eventually parents, employers, politicians etc. would realize that a ‘C’ or ‘4’ or whatever we call it represents greater skills and knowledge than it did previously. At the very least society would have more informed citizens. Perhaps we would all have better jobs, too.

    Like

    Posted by Chris Patterson | March 29, 2017, 12:32 am
  5. Bell curves and continual (student) improvement are two different things. Students can improve without the bell curve shifting. Instead of mark inflation we would have mark deflation. Eventually parents, employers, politicians etc. would realize that a ‘C’ or ‘4’ or whatever we call it represents greater skills and knowledge than it did previously. At the very least society would have more informed citizens. Perhaps we would all have better jobs, too.

    Like

    Posted by cdmaths | March 29, 2017, 12:33 am

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Pingback: The Bell-Curve Cage: Something must break. | While You Were Teaching - March 26, 2017

  2. Pingback: GCSE Grading Goes Ga-Ga. | teacherhead - March 28, 2017

  3. Pingback: Educational Reader’s Digest | Friday 24th March – Friday 31st March – Douglas Wise - March 31, 2017

  4. Pingback: Let’s wake up people – there’s more at stake than we think – paul g moss - April 4, 2017

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