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Missing the Mark : Why So Many School Exam Grades are Wrong - and How to Get Results We Can Trust - Dennis Sherwood

Missing the Mark

Why So Many School Exam Grades are Wrong - and How to Get Results We Can Trust

By: Dennis Sherwood, Dr Robin Bevan (Foreword by)

eBook | 7 June 2024

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'An important contribution to our thinking.' - Sixth Form Colleges Association

'An uncomfortable but important read.' - Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference

'Everyone in UK education should reflect upon the problems identified in this powerful book' - Higher Education Policy Institute

Every summer one million GCSE and A-Level candidates receive results that define their school years and set them up for their life. But those results are gravely unreliable.

In fact, about one grade in four in England is WRONG. That is 1.5 million grades every year.

An A-Level grade B might have been an A, or even a C, had a different examiner marked the script. Similarly, a GCSE grade 7 might have received a grade 8 or a 6.

For a decade, young people and their friends and families have been unable to grasp the full extent of this randomness. Now, in this definitive and easy to follow book, Dennis Sherwood explains why so many pupils receive final grades that don't do them justice. And he suggests ways to regain trust, which apply to essay-based exams throughout the world.


'Know an A Level student who you were absolutely sure should nail an A* but ended up with a B? Well, they probably should have got that A* but were a victim of this scandal. Sherwood's work changed my outlook. Let him change yours too.' - Robert Campbell, former Chief Executive, Morris Education Trust

'Dennis has been challenging our thinking about assessment and the awarding of grades for many years, combining detailed research with an engaging manner and clear explanations... this is an important contribution to our thinking.' - Bill Watkin, Chief Executive, Sixth Form Colleges Association

'Dennis Sherwood asks the questions about exam grades that no one really wants to answer. His analysis suggests that much of what we think we know about school exams is based at best on wishful thinking and at worst on wilful misrepresentation of statistics. But he also has some positive suggestions for improvement. Missing the Mark is an uncomfortable but important read.' - Melvyn Roffe, Chair, Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference

'Missing a grade can result in university or college applications being rejected. Dennis Sherwood asks the $64,000 question: 'Are grades reliable enough for the purposes they are supposed to serve?' This book presents an insightful analysis of this important matter, including the rules introduced in 2016 to reduce the number of appeals, the controversial grading processes in 2020 and 2021 when exams were cancelled, why 'real' grades are so unreliable, and some solutions too.' - Huy Duong, parent

'Everyone in UK education should reflect upon the problems identified in this powerful book - and then decide what to do about them.' - Nick Hillman, Director, Higher Education Policy Institute

Anyone with an interest in how examinations are assessed, from those in government, regulators, schools, colleges, universities to employers, teachers, parents and students, should read Dennis Sherwood's incisive analysis. His conclusions will have a profound impact on our idea of the accuracy, reliability and fairness of examinations. - Mike Larkin, Emeritus Professor Queen's University of Belfast and Total Equality For Students

'Dennis provides a clear, step-by-step outline of what is going so terribly wrong and the easy ways to remedy this.' - Ollie Green, A-level student

About the author

Dennis Sherwood is a management consultant with experience of solving complex problems. He has a Physics Masters from the University of Cambridge, an MPhil in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry from Yale University and a PhD in biology from the University of California in San Diego. After being a consulting partner at Deloitte Haskins + Sells, and Coopers & Lybrand, he became an executive director at Goldman Sachs. He now runs his own business, The Silver Bullet Machine Manufacturing Company Limited, specialising in organisational creativity and innovation. He is author of 14 books.

Extract - Foreword

Gold standard! Well, maybe not! For many years England's GCSE and A-level qualifications have enjoyed an international reputation as world-leading. They have frequently been cited as 'gold standard' examinations. In this book Dennis Sherwood applies forensic analysis, in an accessible format, to one aspect of those qualifications - the grades awarded to each student on results day. His expert commentary leaves us in no doubt that the architecture of reliability is nothing more than a fancy façade on a house that's built on sand.

This is not a book about whether examinations are the best way to assess authentic learning. That's a different debate, although there's evidence here that excessive reliance on end-of-course examinations exacerbates the great grading scandal.

This is also not a book about whether the content of our examination-driven school and college curriculum is well-designed, fit for purpose or sufficiently visionary for the future needs of students. That too is a long overdue discussion which should inform public policy, but Dennis retains his focus on one pressing issue. Are the grades awarded to students at the end of the examination process a reliable indicator of their performance and ability? Can those grades be trusted to determine suitability for advanced academic study or access to employment? Do they serve to differentiate authentically between one student and the next?

We are all familiar with the results day photographs that accompany the headlines in August. Enthusiastic celebrations with beaming smiles. Images that are carefully contrived to align with the supporting text as 'Camelia' (or whoever) progresses to a top university with her four A* grades or 'Daniel' revealed to be a prodigy as he attains twelve grade 9's in his GCSEs.

Their results may well be impressive and will certainly open doors towards privileged academic opportunities. But what if the student with AAB is actually no better, in any meaningful sense, than the student with BAC? What if these grades lack the precision that they appear to convey? Is there an element of unreliability in how they are awarded - such that two otherwise identical candidates may as well roll a dice alongside completing their examination paper to determine which, say, of two adjacent grades they may ultimately be awarded?

If Dennis is right - and I think he is - then a great grading scandal unfolds before our eyes every summer...

[Buy the book to continue reading the foreword]

Dr Robin Bevan, Headteacher, Southend High School for Boys and NEU Past National President, 2020-21


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