Why finals fail the test: the science behind Michael Gove’s GCSE reforms

2 April 2013

Who’s better at examinations, boys or girls? Girls, says my Grandmother, mistress of languages at a private school. Boys, says my father, a science teacher at a comprehensive. “Who cares, we just need to get rid of coursework,” seems to be the approach of the Education Secretary, Michael Gove.

The Association of Teachers and Lecturers (ATL) has argued that girls will be disadvantaged by the proposed changes to GCSE exams in England. Mary Bousted, the ATL’s General Secretary, stated that it was ‘true that girls are more diligent; girls are certainly more conscientious,’ the result being that coursework modules bring out the best in their abilities. The Department of Education (DfE) protest that this is nothing more than the staffroom rumour mill at work and that there is no evidence to back up the union’s contentions.

The DfE are right, it’s about time that we considered some empirical evidence. That empirical evidence suggests that we need more radical reform than that which either the DfE or the ATL is proposing.

Put simply, GCSE exams are about remembering things. Cognitive psychology suggests that girls are better at this than boys. Research conducted by Michael Ullman at Georgetown University indicates that women outperform men when it comes to declarative memory.

Declarative memory is the ability to record and retrieve factual information, for example navigation by explicitly remembered landmarks. Men on the other hand are better at what psychologists call procedural memory: how to catch a ball, ride a bicycle or find your way home. In short the stuff we don’t know we know.

Ullman and his team have found that oestrogens modulate declarative memory functionality, with declarative memory abilities increasing during the menstrual cycle. Females in the animal kingdom have even been found to have better declarative memory abilities.

The message from science seems clear: in theory at least, girls should be better than boys at remembering facts. This isn’t just a single of piece of evidence, or something from a popular-science book, there’s tonnes of research out there which addresses similar themes. The ATL conference delegates spoke of girls as being more ‘diligent’ and boys more ‘adventurous.’ But we need evidence, not anecdotes from teachers. Who knows what scope there is for adventure in GCSE exams.

However, all sides of the debate generalise terribly when it comes to this issue. It’s a cliche, but every child is different. And sex is far from the only variable: exam performance has been said to vary according to other demographics, such as socio-economic status or ethnicity.

Examinations should give those taking them the chance to perform and display their knowledge and skills on a variety of different platforms, be they examinations, coursework, practical or spoken examinations. Schools and universities should provide a multitude of different ways to test their students. Not only would a comprehensive testing framework ensure that stress doesn’t mask ability or knowledge, it would also not disadvantage either sex. Above all, it might make the learning experience all that bit more enjoyable.

Our University is the guiltiest of all when it comes to assessments: most Triposes have little to no coursework or practical elements and so your mark for a given course is often determined by three hours of writing at the end of the academic year.

What is needed is progressive examination reform that takes into account recent scientific evidence about how different groups perform, as well as the experiences of teachers and the opinions of their unions.

Yet universities such as ours need to change as well. We need to ask ourselves whether our examination systems really test ability and knowledge or simply the ability to jump hoops under stressful conditions in rote learned fashion. If Michael Gove is stuck in the past, so are we.

Jack Pulman-Slater, 2nd year Linguistics student at Girton.