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Britain turns its scholastic banquet into nouvelle cuisine

The British have always made a large meal of their secondary school examinations, unlike the Americans who seem to prefer a series of academic snacks. So for many British families with 16-year-old children the summer months are heavy with serious ``swotting'' in preparation for important tests -- tests on which their futures may hang.

But all that is changing now.

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The English and Welsh educational system is to get a new examination that will encourage all students to do better. The new examination is meant both to stretch the gifted and to avoid making the less able feel second-rate. The test will be introduced next month.

Like the ``O'' level and ``CSE'' examinations that it replaces, the General Certificate of Education (GCSE) will be taken at age 16, the youngest age at which British law permits a student to leave school. Like its predecessors, the GCSE assumes a two-year program of work, so the first new certificates will be awarded in 1988.

The new examination was at the core of a dispute between teachers and the London government earlier this year. Initially, the teachers' unions (including the largest one, the National Union of Teachers) thought the GCSE was a good idea. But when they realized that the government planned to introduce the new exam before resolving disputes over pay and duties, they changed their position.

Throughout the dispute many teachers refused to work on school matters outside official working hours. But Sir Keith Joseph, Britain's former education secretary, insisted that the introduction of the new system should not be delayed. Since a new exam system demands new curriculums, Sir Keith's insistence has left teachers scrambling: They must be ready to teach new material when the autumn term begins in September -- in spite of the fact that some syllabuses were agreed on only in the last few weeks.

Designing an exam that all students -- regardless of their academic abilities -- can tackle is a formidable task. The two old examinations only catered to the top 60 percent of the pupil population. By contrast, the new exams must be designed for all candidates who can ``reach the standards required for the award of particular grades in each subject.''

Two innovations (called ``criteria-related grades'' and ``differentiated assessment'' in the jargon of the day) will help the test designers achieve this result.

The first, ``criteria-related grades,'' are grades given to a piece of work or an examination paper after the work or paper has been measured against clearly stated criteria. In the past, the ``pass mark'' in an exam was determined according to the overall performance of all candidates. Students, in short, were graded in relative, rather than absolute, terms. Now all students who reach the stated standard will be awarded the grade -- regardless of the general standard for that year. This will also make it easier to measure the standard of one years' results against another.

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The other innovation that the new exam writers will use is ``differentiated assessment.'' This means that in all subjects candidates for the certificate will be able to answer questions suited to their level of performance. The clever pupils will have more advanced knowledge, so they will be asked different questions. For these situations there may well be separate papers with more advanced content that can be taken. For some subjects, like English, the paper may be arranged in ``steps,'' with the harder questions appearing at the end.

The need for continuous assessment -- rather than staking all on the results of a few hours spent on a hot summer's day in a stuffy examination room -- has been felt for years. Indeed, the CSE, one of the GCSE's predecessors, based a substantial proportion of the final verdict on work done during the year. This ``course work'' will also be an important element in the GCSE. For this reason, teachers will be brought more into the field of examination assessment. This will bring with it a fairly elaborate organization to ensure that equivalent standards are maintained throughout England and Wales.