Are Modern Foreign Languages exams too difficult? | University of Oxford
Modern foreign languages
Are Modern Foreign Languages exams too difficult?

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Are Modern Foreign Languages exams too difficult?

Professor Katrin Kohl of Oxford's Faculty of Medieval and Modern Languages has written a letter to The Guardian calling on Ofqual to 'urgently adjust grade boundaries and implement proper quality control for Modern Foreign Languages (MFL) exams'. The letter has been signed by 150 university teachers, and The Guardian has also published a report on the issues raised. Here, Katrin Kohl gives further details about how the design and grading of exams are affecting MFL subjects and the pupils studying them.

Languages have long been considered ‘difficult’. The reasons are obvious – you can’t make progress without learning lots of vocabulary, you have to get your mind round illogical grammar rules and avoid getting discouraged by mistakes when applying them, and you project yourself publicly as an ignoramus every time you open your mouth to practise speaking. Moreover, words and rules are almost as quickly forgotten as they’re learned. Add to this the fact that English native speakers already know the most useful language in the world including the language of the internet and dominant pop culture, and it’s hardly surprising that foreign language learning in the UK is suffering.

There are many joys and rewards in learning languages, too – cognitive benefits, cultural enrichment, communicative empowerment, sense of adventure, creation of a new identity. Yet these require careful nurturing, patience and time. And time is in particularly short supply in crowded school timetables.

Powerful measures are needed if the difficulties are not to win the day. The most effective one is making the subject compulsory at school. In other European countries that’s normal. In England, that battle was lost in 2004 when the Labour government made languages optional at GCSE. Further nails were hammered into the languages coffin with the intensive promotion of STEM subjects as a career advantage, the abolition of the fourth AS subject from 2016, and the push towards fewer GCSEs with the reformed qualifications. Counter-measures by the government such as the EBacc and compulsory language teaching at primary level have not succeeded in reversing the trend.

There’s now widespread alarm at the rapid loss of language skills as schools reduce provision and universities close language departments. The All-Party Parliamentary Group on Modern Languages has demanded a Recovery Programme; the British Academy has issued a Call for Action together with the Royal Society, Academy of Medical Sciences and Royal Academy of Engineering; and the Arts and Humanities Research Council has invested some £16 million in research programmes designed to give languages a shot in the arm.

Meanwhile the spotlight is on the GCSE and A level exams in Modern Foreign Languages – are they fit for purpose? This is all the more critical in a context where other factors are impacting negatively on the subject. Yet schools report that it’s primarily the difficulty of the course and exams that is prompting learners to drop the subject. There are two interconnected issues here. One is ‘severe grading’. The other is the intrinsic difficulty of the exam papers, which in turn generates courses that are too demanding and makes for stressed teachers and learners. The exam regulator Ofqual is ultimately responsible for both issues since it oversees the work of the exam boards and maintains standards across subjects.

After some ten years of complaints from teachers, five years of support from the higher education subject community, and several consultations and research studies, Ofqual acknowledged last November that grading in MFL A levels is indeed, as teachers had claimed, ‘severe’ and that French, German and Spanish A levels are ‘of above average difficulty’. Yet Ofqual decided not to make an adjustment to the grades.

A consultation is now underway for a similar exercise with GCSEs in MFL. The decision expected in the autumn. So what about the impact of severe grading? Ofqual has been amassing statistical proof to show that there is no causal link with falling numbers. But can that possibly be the case? Which learner, parent or school will go for a subject that has statistically been proven even by the exam regulator to be ‘severely graded’ and thereby put the student’s university place at risk?

A key factor underlying excessive difficulty of the language exams for English learners is the presence of native and near-native speakers of the language in the exam cohort. This factor is unique to Modern Foreign Languages and it was partially addressed by Ofqual in 2017 with a small one-off adjustment to A level grading in French, German and Spanish. But what hasn’t yet been acknowledged is their effect on the exam papers.

This is significant, especially for smaller languages where the proportion of native speakers tends to be highest. Research commissioned by Ofqual showed that in the German A level sample, almost half the students gaining an A* were native-speakers, while at grade A, they made up almost a fourth. These are invisible to examiners, exam boards and Ofqual when it comes to scrutinising marks profiles. So even if the exam is far too difficult for non-native speakers, there will be enough marks gained at the top end to suggest the exam is working.

In fact an examiners’ report for the 2018 A level in German indicates that there may be insufficient awareness of difficulty as an issue. In the case of a reading comprehension question concerning a grammatically highly complex sentence with a word very unlikely to be familiar to an English learner, the examiner comments that the question ‘discriminated well. A few candidates answered this correctly and gained a mark’. The sample answer given in the report for this part of the exam is likely to be by a near-native speaker.

Learners, then, face a triple whammy – a rushed, stressful course that can’t possibly prepare them thoroughly for the exam at the end of it; a demoralising exam experience that makes them feel failures; and a grade that is below what they would get in another subject for equivalent performance.

So what’s to be done? There’s a window between now and Ofqual’s autumn decision for a change of direction. Ofqual needs to acknowledge the overwhelming evidence of anomalies in Modern Foreign Languages assessment – and act:

  1. Reopen the question of A level grading, and carry out the necessary adjustment to eliminate ‘severe grading’.
  2. Simplify the exam papers, and ensure that the exam boards start working with robust criteria for controlling the level of linguistic difficulty appropriately for non-native speakers.
  3. Gain better understanding of the impact of native and near-native speakers on exam papers, marking and grading, and make the necessary adjustments for all languages so non-native speakers are rewarded appropriately.

The subject community in schools and universities is keen to support this endeavour. If Ofqual does not address these matters now, language learning in the UK will face an inexorable further downward spiral caused by unrealistic expectations, exam difficulty, severe grading, irreversible loss of provision in schools and universities, and an intensifying teacher shortage.

You can read Ofqual’s response to the Guardian article and letter here.

Read Professor Kohl's letter to Ofqual, plus supporting documents on the Creative Multilingualism website.