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Birthdays, Examinations and Fairness

‘The year was 2081, and everybody was finally equal.  They weren’t only equal before God and the law.  They were equal every which way.  Nobody was smarter than anybody else.  Nobody was better looking than anybody else.  Nobody was stronger or quicker than anybody else.  All this equality was due to the 211th, 212th, and 213th Amendments to the Constitution, and to the unceasing vigilance of agents of the United States Handicapper General.’
This is the opening section of a short science fiction story called ‘Harrison Bergeron’ published in 1961 by the American writer Kurt Vonnegut.  (The whole story can be read in 10 minutes or so and the text is readily available on the internet.)  For Vonnegut, the potential negative impact of attempts to achieve equality on individuality and human achievement was a defining and abiding concern.

Michael Gove, the ambitious Secretary of State for Education, has watered down his proposals for the reform of public examinations under heavy pressure from just about everyone although the central objectives remain unchanged.  New A levels will be introduced from September 2015, a year later than originally proposed, with candidates taking the papers at the end of 2 years; the AS examination, currently taken as a half-way house at the end of the L6, will cease to exist in its current form.  New GCSEs will also be introduced from September 2015 and will also centre on written papers to be taken at the end of the course.  These changes will reduce the number of examinations and increase the time available for teaching but inevitably the stakes for students taking these examinations will be higher.  In an educational world where future opportunities rely so heavily on success in public examinations the need for high quality marking and ‘fairness’ will become ever greater.  The omens on marking are not good with the examination boards in some disarray and a continuing shortage of experienced and capable markers.  The problems are unlikely to be helped by the short time-scales for the introduction of the new qualifications with no opportunity for the examinations to be properly piloted before the courses begin to be taught in 2015.  In terms of ‘fairness’ I have found that people tend to interpret this word in a way that suits their own ends; does fair mean that students take the same paper under the same conditions or is this unfair to some students?
Currently, extra time may be awarded to those students who have difficulties in reading or processing information and some students may word process their answers, have rest breaks and be supported through an invigilator reading the question paper or their answers.  The motivation for this is clear: to allow the student to demonstrate the skills, knowledge and understanding they possess in the subject being examined.  Without the special arrangements the students’ disabilities would prevent them from accessing the examination; they are entitled to help to read and grasp the meaning of the question and express their responses but not to help them tackle it.  Teasing out who is entitled to this adjustment is more difficult and more contentious and revolves around standardised tests administered by educational psychologists.  The definition of disability here is ‘limitations going beyond the normal differences in ability which may exist among people’.  The limitation must be ‘substantial’, and ‘long term’.  Equally, the examination boards do award extra marks when marking scripts if students suffer bereavement or illness close to the time of the examination; the understandable justification here is that the student has been disadvantaged and is likely to have underperformed in the papers.  This is in some ways more controversial as it adjusts scores based on an assessment that external circumstances have prevented the student from demonstrating their skills, knowledge and understanding.
Repeated studies have shown that birth date has a profound effect on student achievement with those born in September significantly outperforming those with August birthdays.  As well as academic achievement birth date also affects happiness and a range of social indicators including future earnings.  (See http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-15490760 or http://www.ifs.org.uk/wps/wp1006.pdf for a full study.) 
The difference in achievement is linear through the year with even students born in October rather than September showing a proportionate disadvantage.  The gap narrows with age but around 10% fewer students with August birthdays reach the government’s preferred measure of 5 A* to C grades at GCSE than students with September birthdays.  The disparity would seem to go beyond the ‘normal differences in ability between students’ and is certainly ‘substantial’ and ‘long-term’.  Clearly, however, the differences are a consequence of the students’ skills, knowledge and understanding of the subjects being affected by external circumstances rather than being due to difficulties in grasping the questions.  Whilst the differences are most pronounced at age 7 the effects are still clear at GCSE, A level and at university, perhaps because underperformance at 16 and 18 prevents students reaching university.  It is tempting to wonder whether the effect is linked to time spent in school but studies comparing children who begin school in September with those who begin the following January tend to suggest that the effect is simply a consequence of age.  What can be done?  Only allowing births in September appears somewhat draconian as well as impractical.  Allowing students to sit examinations at different times during the year, depending on their age, would be difficult to manage and prepare students for.  It would perhaps then be reasonable for the examination boards to correct examination marks for the birth date of the candidate.  In practical terms the groups of students taking most GCSE or A level examinations are sufficiently large that it is straightforward to work out what premium should be applied to a candidate’s mark depending on how many months after September their birthday occurs.
More controversially it is clear from the same study referenced above that girls outperform boys at ages 7, 11, 16, 18 and in terms of participation rates at university.  (I am bound to say that the Birkdale results for boys are pretty positive – see http://www.birkdaleschool.org.uk/index.phtml?d=549412 .)  Perhaps it is time to consider maleness a disability in educational terms, or at least a significant external factor, and correct examination results for gender.  Some have argued that the examination boards should adjust results for social disadvantage or even ability.  The voice of Vonnegut’s National Handicapper General sounds uncomfortably close to my ear.
As a man with a mid-July birthday it is tempting to consider what results I might have achieved had I been born in September!

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