Setting examination standards: A global perspective

By Lena Gray
Published 1 Oct 2018

A new publication, Examination Standards: How Measures and Meanings Differ Around the World, was recently launched at the International Association for Educational Assessment (IAEA) annual conference. The book is edited by leading education assessment experts, including CERP’s Lena Gray.

The book offers an insight into how exam standards are set around the globe. But why is it so important to compare standards on a global scale, and what exactly can exam boards learn from this?

Lena Gray shares her thoughts on how the work on standard setting has evolved over the last three years…

A few years back, I was working with Jo-Anne Baird, Director of Oxford University’s Department of Education, on a comparison of the curriculum-related, school-leaving exams in England and Scotland, known in the industry as a home–international comparison. We were not simply looking at the standards of the exams but about how the standards in these two areas were conceptualised, how they differed and what the consequences of that were.

Meanwhile, Ofqual was having similar thoughts about examination standards in England: how to ensure they are as good as they can be, and how they compare on an international scale. Further talks with colleagues and other research professionals led to a realisation that others were also interested in these questions. Building on the insights we gained from the home–international comparison, a bigger and broader study, covering standard setting systems in countries around the world, was planned.

The aim of the project – entitled ‘Setting and maintaining standards in national examinations’ – was (and is) to open conversations between international experts to explore how different countries tackle standard setting and maintenance for their national school-leaving or university entrance exams. Over the last three years, we have looked at the diversity of approaches used in curriculum-related exam systems post-16 in nine countries – Australia, Chile, England, France, Georgia, Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States.

In discussions about education and qualifications, the term ‘standards’ crops up constantly, but listen carefully to any exchange, even between experts, and it quickly becomes clear that the word has a multitude of different meanings. As we got further into the project, we found that each system has its own issues and challenges, and therefore its own responses to these that fit with its particular social, cultural, and political systems.

And this is why this type of work is so important: it brings together assessment research professionals from around the world, to collectively ask the same questions of their own exam systems and to see what can be learned from each other’s. The technical challenges associated with this make it an area where assessment researchers can make a real difference, and we feel confident that we are starting to do so.

The first major output of the project was a three-day symposium at Oxford University’s Brasenose College in 2017. This was one of the first occasions that experts had gathered together to share knowledge about the theories, policies and practices of standard setting and maintaining in their own senior school qualifications systems. The development of this knowledge community has been a critical outcome of the project, one that we have found to be enormously rewarding and are eager to share with others. The next stage of the project will be to work with this expanding knowledge community to produce a Special Issue of the journal Assessment in Education: Principles, Policy and Practice.

We live in a time when the world is getting smaller every day and where global interactions on everything, from business to scientific research, have increased to unprecedented levels. All exam boards, and others responsible for setting standards in their country, need to be confident that they are preparing their young people to take full advantage of the opportunities a global society offers.

Examination Standards: How Measures and Meanings Differ Around the World is the culmination of three years of work, involving representatives from nine countries, and edited by industry experts. 

Information about the editors Jo-Anne Baird is Director of the Department of Education at Oxford University and a member of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment (OUCEA). Tina Isaacs is an Honorary Associate Professor in Educational Assessment at the UCL Institute of Education. Dennis Opposs is Standards Chair at the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual). Lena Gray is Director of Research at the Centre for Education Research and Practice at AQA, England’s largest GCSE and A-level exam board.


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