Exams 2021: 7 questions still unanswered

The government has announced what to expect from the 2021 exam series, but there is still more information that teachers need to know
3rd December 2020, 12:00pm
Grainne Hallahan


Exams 2021: 7 questions still unanswered

Schools Reopening: Six Key Questions That Need Answering

It has just become clearer what exams will look like in 2021. In an attempt to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the Department for Education has made adjustments to the summer examination series. 

There will be pre-released information about some of the topics that exams will cover, an additional chance to sit the exam for students who are absent on the day, and grading will be "in line" with that of 2020.

You can read more about the changes in our piece '5 ways exams will be different this summer'.

But even with the above information, teachers will still be left asking questions following this latest update. Here are seven things we still need to know.

1. Which exams will be given extra concessions?

For subjects such as mathematics or chemistry, it's quite easy to imagine how topics could be released to help point students in the right direction for their revision.

But what about subjects like English language? How can students sitting one of the most high-stakes exams have their experience made "less daunting" when the exam is based on unseen texts? What would pre-released topic information look like here?

2. How specific will the information be?

Although the promise of extra information about what students will be tested on sounds good in theory, what will we actually get in reality? Will it simply be a broad topic area, or will more detail be released?

3. What will happen to students who were absent for that topic owing to self-isolation?

The idea of releasing topic information early is that it will help students to refine their revision, but what if a student was self-isolating when a topic was initially taught? Although they may have been able to cover the same work at home, there's a chance that they will still be at a disadvantage in comparison with those who were present for your teaching of the topic. Will there be any concessions here?

4. How will they monitor student absence during exams?

Under normal conditions, students who need to be absent for an exam must have their absence authorised and special considerations applied for by the exams officer using the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) process. However, owing to the nature of the rules for self-isolation, students won't be able to have their absence authorised in the same way, as coronavirus recommendations state not to visit a doctor, making it harder for students to prove their absence, and easier for students to falsify absences if no proof of the need for isolation is asked for. 

5. What will the new expert group deliver?

It is already well documented that learning has been uneven for this year's exam cohort, which is why the DfE has put in place a "new expert group to look at differential learning and monitor the variation in the impact of the pandemic on students across the country". But what will the outcomes of this process be?

6. What happens to grade inflation in 2022?

Grading will be "in line" with that of 2020, which means we can expect to see comparable grade distribution in 2021. But what is going to happen in subsequent years? Are we now going to follow a new distribution of grades in order to not disadvantage students in future years?

7. How do these measures address the unevenness of learning?

All of these considerations are blanket changes that do not take into account the unevenness of learning. So what will be done for students who have had high levels of absence this year? Or for students for whom teaching has been disrupted owing to staff absence?

It's possible that more changes are still ahead. Answers will be needed if we are to make the examination series fairer for all.

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