‘Hot Housing’ Students to Improve League Table Rankings

The publication of new league tables of secondary school results in England last week brought to light another way of manipulating school results.

Secondary schools are encouraging students to take exams early in order to give them a chance to repeat the exam if their results are not good enough. The practice is called ‘hot housing’ students to get better results.

The Guardian newspaper (15 January) reported that many schools are allowing students to take the same General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) exam up to three times in the space of a year in order to improve their results. Examination boards have reported substantial increases in the number of students who took their GCSE exams early in order to allow time for a re-sit of the exam in the case of failure.

According to the report, some students have taken the same GCSE exam up to three times in the one year in order to improve their results. Many are taking their exams up to six months early in order to allow time for a re-sit. The exam board, Edexcel, said it had seen a 67% rise in the number of students taking a whole GCSE early, while the number re-taking modules to improve their scores had nearly doubled.

The Guardian report stated that this tactic is being encouraged increasingly across England by school principals desperate to improve their school’s ranking in the league tables. Teachers’ leaders blamed Government pressure on school principals to improve results and move up the school league tables for the increased focus on exams that was putting children under stress and detracting from the depth of their learning.

Alan Smithers, Professor of Education at Buckingham University, told the Guardian that: “League tables have got all out of proportion and schools will now do all they can to improve their place. Early entry is one way they are doing it. Other ways include focusing on the pupils on the C-D border. We’re in danger of producing a set of statistics that no longer accurately reflect pupils’ progression but the work the schools can do to improve their scores.”

‘Hot housing’ students for literacy and numeracy tests used to judge school performance is now a feature of most United States school systems. Classrooms are being turned into test preparation factories. Weeks and months can be devoted to test preparation at the expense of other parts of the curriculum and other learning areas. Even recess time has been cut or eliminated in many schools so that more time can be given to test preparation.

Reporting individual school results inevitably leads to league tables and immense pressure on schools and teachers to improve school rankings. The evidence is that schools look for ‘quick fixes’ to improve their ranking. ‘Hot housing’ students by repeated test preparation and re-taking of exams is just one among many ways schools try to manipulate their results.

Other well-established practices in England and the United States include removal of low-achieving students from tests by placing them in special education streams, suspending them or encouraging them to be absent on test days and retaining them in grades not tested. The incidence of teachers helping students during tests or changing answers has been shown to increase following the introduction of reporting school results.

Another way to artificially boost school results is to make greater use of special dispensations to help students during tests. They include having extra time for tests, use of a dictionary, small group or one-on-one testing, oral reading of directions and use of an aide for transcribing responses. They also include special allowances in the case of illness such as alternative assessments and sitting tests at different times from other students.

The New York City school reporting system, so admired by Julia Gillard, has encouraged schools to use special dispensations for students during tests to improve their results. There has been a massive increase in so-called “accommodations” for students taking tests since the new reporting system was introduced.

This practice is already being used in Australia as shown by last year’s revelations in the Sydney Morning Herald about excessive use of dispensations for the HSC exam by some NSW elite private schools. Up to 30% of students at some private schools were given special provisions in the 2008 HSC, compared with an average 7% of government high school students. Masada College claimed special dispensations for 30% of its students and Scot’s College claimed them for 25% of its students. In 2006, Reddam House received special consideration for 36% of its HSC students.

All this is a harbinger of what can be expected across Australia with the decision of Australian Governments last year to go ahead with reporting of individual school results. Manipulation of school results will become a priority for schools instead of real learning in the classroom.

Trevor Cobbold

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