Assessment: Time to close down the exam factory

When this crisis is over, we should not turn back to a system that has so badly failed many young people.

TES article by Sean Vernell


The announcement to cancel GCSE and A-level exams this year and to grade students based on a broad range of evidence, including teacher assessment, mock exams and prior attainment has raised many issues in relation to equality and the legitimacy of examinations as the key method of assessment in our education system.

Ofqual has provided some details about the way they expect practitioners to grade students. The guidelines make clear how the grades will be arrived at. They have also provided a grading guidance.

Final predictions

In some colleges, managers in their rush to online learning are encouraging staff to be less than transparent with students about the work they are doing. Suggesting that final predictions will depend on this work and even encouraging online tests, carried out with the same message to students that this is vital to final predictions.

This is not a transparent or accurate reading of Ofqual guidance in which it will clearly be the work done prior to the lockdown across a range of areas, as well as other factors, that will now be used to give the “calculated grades” that students will now get.

We can and should be honest with students about this rather than feeding students a false line that they are still preparing for a facsimile of non-existent exams. We must also be willing and confident to give, advocate and encourage positive teacher assessments which will contribute to their real grades, and which ensure that students are not disadvantaged.

Ofqual in their guidelines recognise that predicted grades can lead to students from disadvantaged backgrounds being under predicted. Rightly, Ofqual has decided therefore that student grades will not be based simply on existing teacher predicted grades.

UCU commissioned research into the way that predicted grades regularly disadvantage poorer students. The research showed that high-achieving, disadvantaged students are more likely to have their grades under-predicted than their wealthier contemporaries. Practitioners will need to be alert to any attempt to under predict students when assessing their work, especially those from disadvantaged or BAME backgrounds.

Fair teacher assessment

It is a step forward to assess students work in the round rather than use current predicted grades to award a final grade. However, to give a fair teacher assessment we must break out of the mindset of exam performance. This is vitally important for many of our young people in colleges doing GCSE resits in which the exam model, rather than their ability, is their biggest challenge. Teachers must assess their students on the basis of their intellectual abilities in the classroom and not on the way they may, or may not have, performed in an exam.

There are those within the sector who believe that we must maintain “standards”, even in a crisis. They argue that rigorous testing and predicted grades based on performance in exams is needed to ensure that students entering higher education have the skills and abilities appropriate to university.

But does exam-based assessment really prepare our students with the skills and the intellectual rigour to study at university, or prepare them for the world of work?

Now is the time to close the exam factory. Recently, at my own college, we organised an exhibition entitled Utopia, Dystopia – Voices from the Future. In this exhibition, my GCSE English students displayed essays alongside photographs which had been a stimulus for their writing. My colleagues viewing the exhibition were surprised when I told them that probably 50 per cent of the students whose work was on display were unlikely to gain a grade 4 in their GCSE exam this year.

Barriers to demonstrating their abilities

I explained to them that probably a majority of our students can write and read to at least a grade 4 standard when they are given the time to complete their work. The clock is the main barrier to students’ ability to really demonstrate their intellectual abilities.

Does it really matter if a student takes an hour to complete a piece of work rather than half an hour, as long as their work has reached a certain standard? Does being able to beat the clock really more accurately demonstrate our students’ abilities than other forms of assessment?

It is a myth that the exam-driven syllabus has raised students’ understanding and abilities. In fact, the opposite is true. The obsession with testing everything through exams has led to a narrowing of what we teach and what our students learn. The critical thinking, independent learning and research skills of young people have been severely weakened by an education system structured around testing and examinations.

But the exam system was never designed to liberate our young peoples minds. It was designed to instil, from the very earliest age, and as regularly as possible, the importance of competition. To make normal the need to compete for work, education, housing and between education institutions.

The government has now temporarily abandoned exams and performance measures and the sky has not fallen in. When the crisis is over, lets not turn back to a system that has so badly failed our young people.

Keeping them engaged

In the meantime, to engage our students to participate in our remote learning programmes let’s drop the “do question 5 on paper 1″- type questions. There will be little incentive for students to participate in any of our online learning programmes if we maintain this approach.

Instead of focusing on exams, we should look at producing project-based work to develop student skills and knowledge. 

Lets make sure our students get the grades that really reflect their real abilities. Lets also make sure that when we emerge out of this dreadful coronavirus crisis we rethink our education system, removing the stultifying exam-based assessment model and replacing it with a model that allows our students to reclaim their critical and independent thinking skills.

Sean Vernell is FE vice chair of the University and College Union

2 Replies to “Assessment: Time to close down the exam factory”

  1. As a GCSE resit teacher who is involved in this process I fear that your optimism is unfounded. It looks likely that each institution will only be allowed the same pass rate as it has achieved in previous years. Thus this years FE cohort will in fact be disadvantaged by the proposed system.

  2. Hi Alison. I agree. That is what I was trying to argue. There are two bits two Ofqaul’s guidance. The first is what you can use to grade students. This is a range of work not just mocks or the predicted grades we have already given. This is fine. But, as I argue in my piece, the grade should be estimated only on student work and not on what the student might or might not have achieved in an exam, which is unfortunately what OFqual want us to do.

    The second issue is Ranking. Indeed this is what will absolutely disadvantage our students. I didn’t not mention this in my article. I will be doing a follow piece on this.

    In the end though we will have to fight to stop Ofqual and government imposing such an unfair grading system and campaign for an education system not assessed on exams and the bell curve.

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