Both GCSEs and A Level results this year have told the same story – a growth in the gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students and between independent and state schools. The outcry has been more muted than in 2020, mainly because no attempt was made to artificially hold down grades and as a result far fewer students felt hard done by.
What we have seen however is the examination lobby – and they are a noisy and excessively influential lobby – taking the opportunity to rubbish any alternative to the pre 2020 model of relying almost exclusively on end of course written examinations.
They are doing this by claiming that the only alternative to end of course exams is the shambolic non-system that we had this year. Those who advocate for a more balanced approach to assessment need to resist this attempt to impose such a binary choice.
We are where we are because of deliberate choices made at the highest level of government:
Prime minister Boris Johnson told officials not to make contingency plans for schools last year in the event of another lockdown, according to an explosive new report.
The report concludes government’s highly centralised approach, tensions between the Department for Education and Number 10, a refusal to work with local authorities and “dreadful” communications resulted in “U-turn after U-turn, with pupils, parents and teachers left bewildered and floundering time and again”.Samantha Booth, Schools Week (Wednesday 4 August 2021)
So, there was no attempt to put in place a consistent approach to in school assessment until it was too late to do it properly. Schools and colleges undoubtedly did their best in almost impossible circumstances but were scandalously let down by government.
It’s on this basis that the exam only lobby – led by Nick Gibb – is insisting that this proves exams are the only fair way of assessing pupils and that the disadvantaged will suffer if they are abandoned.
What this argument ignores is that exams as we have them don’t actually measure many important aspects of learning. Nor, as research has shown, are they especially accurate. Never again in their lives after leaving education will people be faced with a 3 hour test of memory and handwriting with no access to any other resources. Moreover, there are huge vulnerabilities built into the exam system – at the individual level where illness or nerves can ruin a student’s chances and, as we have seen, at system level because there is no plan B if exams are disrupted.
It should be obvious that the fairest system would use the widest possible range of assessment techniques. This would allow students with differing strengths to genuinely demonstrate what they know and can do. Building up assessment over time also provides a critical safety net in the event of system failure.
The challenge then is to make assessment fair, consistent and fit for purpose in the 21st century. That would include externally set and marked tests (not just at the end of a course), school-based tasks and practical and oral activities. Each different technique can act as a check on the accuracy of the others. That is what happens in robust, well-designed systems. We should think about what we actually want to measure in terms of knowledge, skills and qualities and create a system that starts from there. There are lots of ways of then building in a range of techniques such as moderation, sampling and external scrutiny.
But crucially, we must not allow opponents of assessment reform to use this year’s experience as a stick to beat us with. Things went wrong because of a chronic failure by a government which thought they could deal with covid by just willing it away. What we should in fact do is learn from this year about what works, what doesn’t and then think hard about building in real fairness and consistency – and apply the necessary resources to make it work.
SEA NEC, SEA General-Secretary (2014-2019)