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 1-3 are not Good GCSEs even though ~30% 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.

17 comments

  1. […]   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 … Continue reading →https://teacherhead.com/2017/03/26/the-bell-curve-cage-something-must-break/ […]

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  2. 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.

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  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.

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    • 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.

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  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.

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  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.

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  6. […] Really, this is where the action is.  If you are feeling slightly soiled having sold out your hand-on-heart curriculum design values for some P8 bonus points, this will make you feel better. The curriculum is obviously a lot more than just the names in the buckets.   Success in maximizing grades in each subject is a healthier goal – not withstanding the fact that our learner are all prisoners in the bell curve cage. […]

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  7. Compounding the problem is a class-riven society, where position counts for more than quality. While @cdmaths’ solution is sensible, it is unlikely in the UK; the Corinthian idea that you gain through taking part more than by winning is completely at odds with our notions of class.
    The stream of ministers who have no numerical, let alone statistical skills whatsoever is in my view a manifestation of the class problem: someone of ‘high birth’ and the many who to mimic such people do not engage in ‘dirty’ subjects. When was the last time a government minister berated the Press for reporting data in league tables to 3, 4 or more significant figures? Until ministers are capable of doing this, there is no leadership worthy of the word.

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