Exams 2021: The lessons we must learn from this year

We must remember that exams are not the only fair way to judge a student’s performance, says the Association of College's Eddie Playfair
8th December 2020, 6:01pm
Eddie Playfair

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Exams 2021: The lessons we must learn from this year

https://www.tes.com/magazine/news/secondary/exams-2021-lessons-we-must-learn-year
Exams 2021: The Lessons We Must Learn From This Year

The desire to get back to normal and ensure that exams go ahead is understandable. By next summer, when the peak of the pandemic has subsided and vaccines are widely available, it may well be possible to organise exams in the usual way with high student attendance.

Except normal will be impossible. The candidates taking these exams, and the staff who support them, will have been through a year of the most extraordinary crisis faced by any national cohort for three-quarters of a century. We cannot allow ourselves to think that fairly minor adjustments will get us back to where we were.

The government's proposals on providing advance notice of topics to be examined, additional exam aids and the availability of contingency papers are all welcome, as is the "generosity" of aiming for the 2020 grade profile. But these will help all candidates like a rising tide that lifts all boats.


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The differential impact

Students have faced unprecedented disruption to their studies as a result of the pandemic. Some will have had to self-isolate multiple times, some will have had to support sick family members or suffered traumatic loss, some will have little or no access to the devices or connections necessary to support online learning and some will have been severely affected by the impact on staff. All this has affected different students in different ways and the inequalities of geography, class and ethnicity will have intersected at many levels - together with plenty of random bad luck.

The differential impacts thrown up by the pandemic pose the toughest challenge for the exam system. Is it possible to mitigate for all of this and ensure no one is disadvantaged at all? Probably not, but we mustn't allow the impossibility of absolute fairness to prevent us from seeking some greater fairness. The creation of an expert group to look at differential learning loss is a recognition of the problem but it offers no specific measures yet and will be little comfort to the hardest hit students as they prepare for next summer.

Teacher assessments

So, what could we do? One practical suggestion would be to build on the proposed "validated teacher informed assessment" and ensure that every candidate has one, not just those who miss exams. This could sum up what teachers and centres know about the impact of each student's relative disadvantage and inform the grading process without undermining anyone's exam score.

Drawing on teacher judgement in this way would acknowledge that teachers and centres are in the best position to quantify the relative impact experienced by their students. Teacher assessment is not "unfair" and Ofqual's own analysis has shown that the use of centre assessment grades in 2020 did not impact on disadvantage. To rule out any use of teacher assessments would be to learn the wrong lessons from 2020.

For 2021, students have been promised a grade profile close to the 2020 centre assessed outcomes. In a normal year, students' raw marks go through a comparative outcomes adjustment process that can affect their final grade. In 2021, a similar process will be needed to achieve the 2020 grade profiles as promised. Perhaps this "generosity" should be focused on those who have been most affected by disruption rather than distributing it around evenly. We don't correct for relative disadvantage by lifting everyone up by the same amount. 

The cost of huge cohorts

There are other concerns. So far this academic year, colleges have run the largest exam series of the pandemic, with around 130,000 candidates sitting GCSE English and maths exams last month. Next month, colleges will again be at the forefront of large exam sittings with a similar number of January unit exams for applied general qualifications. Both these are larger than usual and running them has raised public health concerns and incurred substantial additional costs, yet neither have yet attracted any resources from the exam support service. Colleges also need to know as soon as possible what further adaptations will be made to assessment on vocational and technical qualifications.

Finally, we need to remember that exams are not the only fair way to judge a student's performance. Looking further ahead, perhaps we need to question our excessive reliance on high-stakes terminal written exams and draw on a broader range of valid assessment methods available.

Eddie Playfair is a senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges

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