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, says UCU's Sean Vernell

Sean Vernell

Teenager in bedroom

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.


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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. They are 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, which clearly states that it will 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 get.

We can and should be honest with students about this rather than feeding them a false line that they are still preparing for a facsimile of nonexistent exams. We must also be willing and confident to give, advocate and encourage positive teacher assessments that 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 underpredicted. 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 underpredicted than their wealthier contemporaries. Practitioners will need to be alert to any attempt to underpredict 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

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