Skip to main content

Do we need "pass" and "fail"?

When GCSEs replaced O-levels and CSEs in about 1987 the grading system did not include, if I recall correctly, a fail threshold between grades C and D. The idea was that pupils would be rewarded for their achievement at whatever level. However, although the GCSE was designed to be a qualification for students of almost all abilities, it was always going to be the case that many would get below a grade C.

Once the tradition became quickly established that anything below a C was deemed (not necessarily by name) a "fail" students and schools would soon begin to doubt the value of their study. This contributed to the fall in MFL exam entries once the subject was made optional. In addition, with the growing importance of high stakes accountability measures schools, to a greater and greater extent, focused on the C/D borderline students, which inevitably had an effect on classroom practice.

The DfE has been aware of this side-effect of A-C accountability measures and is hoping to address it with the new eight subject progress measure.

So what if we could do away with the notion of pass and fail? Would the absence of a pass threshold discourage students from working hard to achieve it? Would it free up teachers to be less focused on the C/D borderline?

I doubt if students, on average, would work less hard in the absence of a pass grade. If some did, their number might well be counterbalanced by those who work hard to achieve any grade they can. Currently a C is valued much more highly than a D, whereas the psychological difference between a D and E is minimal. If we have to maintain our treasured tradition of grades, would it not be preferable if students strove to reach the best grade they could, whatever it may be? Maybe with new number grades we can avoid having a particular number as some kind of pass threshold.

With the prospect of a new 1-9 grading system for GCSE and the advent of this new "P8" measure, we have the opportunity to reconsider whether we need passes and fails. If students and schools were judged for their progress across eight subjects without the fear of "failing" any, it might encourage more students to take a language whilst teachers and pupils could take some pride in their achievement whatever the grade achieved.

It is of note that only at GCSE level do we allow large numbers of students to "fail". At A-level U grades are rare, whilst National Curriculum tests have no notion of pass and fail.

I would be all for doing away with the punitive notion of failure and recognising any level of success.Even better would be if we did away with GCSE completely and broaden our post 16 curriculum, bringing us in line with most nations. But that's another matter!


Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Delayed dictation

What is “delayed dictation”?

Instead of getting students to transcribe immediately what you say, or what a partner says, you can enforce a 10 second delay so that students have to keep running over in their heads what they have heard. Some teachers have even used the delay time to try to distract students with music.

It’s an added challenge for students but has significant value, I think. It reminds me of a phenomenon in music called audiation. I use it frequently as a singer and I bet you do too.

Audiation is thought to be the foundation of musicianship. It takes place when we hear and comprehend music for which the sound is no longer or may never have been present. You can audiate when listening to music, performing from notation, playing “by ear,” improvising, composing, or notating music. When we have a song going round in our mind we are audiating. When we are deliberately learning a song we are audiating.

In our language teaching case, though, the earworm is a word, chunk of l…

Sentence Stealers with a twist

Sentence Stealers is a reading aloud game invented by Gianfranco Conti. I'll describe the game to you, then suggest an extension of it which goes a bit further than reading aloud. By the way, I shouldn't need to justify the usefulness of reading aloud, but just in case, we are talking here about matching sounds to spellings, practising listening, pronunciation and intonation and repeating/recycling high frequency language patterns.

This is how it works:

Display around 15 sentences on the board, preferably ones which show language patterns you have been working on recently or some time ago.Hand out four cards or slips of paper to each student.On each card students must secretly write a sentence from the displayed list.Students then circulate around the class, approaching their classmates and reading a sentence from the displayed list. If the other person has that sentence on one of their cards, they must hand over the card. The other person then does the same, choosing a sentenc…

Using sentence builder frames for GCSE speaking and writing preparation

Some teachers have cottoned on to the fact that sentence builders (aka substitution tables) are a very useful tool for helping students prepare for their GCSE speaking and writing tests. My own hunch is that would help for students of all levels of proficiency, but may be particularly helpful for those likely to get lower grades, say between 3-6. Much depends, of course, on how complex you make the table.

To remind you, here is a typical sentence builder, as found on the frenchteacher site. The topic is talking about where you live. A word of warning - formatting blogs in Blogger is a nightmare when you start with Word documents, so apologies for any issues. It might have taken me another 30 minutes just to sort out the html code underlying the original document.


Setting work for home study

A major challenge for language teachers just now is selecting and sharing work with students to do at home. Here a few suggestions on the issue to add to your own. The sites I mention are the tip of the iceberg and focus mainly on French. I have stuck to free resources, not subscription sites.

By the way, I'm not getting into the use of tech here, as I have no great expertise on that. In any case, I imagine for younger learners especially it may be a question of setting other types of work.

ADVANCED

For advanced learners the job is not so tough. There is a plethora of listening, reading and grammar material they can use, whether it be from their textbooks, other resources shared electronically or online resources. You may have your favourites, but for a selection for French you can check out my links here and here. You may want to stick with topics on the syllabus, or free up students to read and listen more generally to what interests them.

One idea I used was to ask students to c…

"Ask and move" task

This is a lesson plan using an idea from our book Breaking the Sound Barrier (Conti and Smith, 2019). It's a task-based lesson adapted from an idea from Paul Nation and Jonathan Newton. It is aimed at Y10-11 pupils aiming at Higher Tier GCSE, but is easily adaptable to other levels and languages, including A-level. This has been posted as a resource on frenchteacher.net.

This type of lesson plan excites me more than many, because if it runs well, you get a classroom of busy communication when you can step back, monitor and occasionally intervene as students get on with listening, speaking and writing.