Exams are fundamentally flawed – so let's try this

Education could learn from the Guides and Scouts and award students achievement badges all year round, says Drew Burrett

Drew Burrett

'Exams are fundamentally flawed - so let's try this'

With the cancellation of this year’s Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) exams due to Covid-19, and the likelihood that the "blended learning" approach to be adopted from August will have significant impact on next year's exam diet, it seems clear that our system of assessment and certification is in need of an overhaul.

In truth, this issue has been the elephant in the room for Scottish education since the inception of Curriculum for Excellence. Following dramatic modification of the entire educational system for learners from the age of three upwards, Scottish education lost its momentum and chose to assess and certificate in largely the same way as it always had – simply replacing the old exams with new exams.

Many arguments exist about the benefits and drawbacks of exams, but surprisingly little research has been done into what many would consider the main purpose of the education sector. Yet, there can be no doubt that Covid-19 has exposed a fundamental flaw of the exam system – its total reliance upon schools delivering assessments at a time, and in a manner of, the examination body’s choosing.


Background: Year of blended learning 'absolutely not' the plan

Coronavirus: 'Use school closures to reset exam system'

Long read: How a Scout troop is helping special school pupils flourish


Outside educational settings, very few systems of assessment suffer from this inflexibility. In fact, many of the SQA’s own qualifications are assessed in much more flexible, holistic ways based upon assessment judgements made by those delivering the courses.

And many "real-world" assessments involve little or no formal questioning; instead – whether in first aid, sports coaching qualifications or the UK driving test – they are founded upon participants' ability to demonstrate skills and knowledge. Most are available on demand in a range of locations and offer flexible options to be reassessed for those participants who are unsuccessful.

Increasing numbers of qualifications are offered in a format that would be familiar to anyone who has participated in organisations such as Scouts, Guides or Boys' Brigade: badges. These are awarded to participants who can demonstrate that they have met criteria clearly defined by the overseeing body – an approach that has been adapted and developed since 2011 by the Mozilla Foundation Open Badges platform. The platform allows individuals and organisations to set their own criteria to award badges and to group collections of badges into larger awards.

With the SQA already possessing clearly defined criteria for all of its courses, and its own online assessment platform in the SQA Solar platform, much of the groundwork in developing an Open Badges approach to assessment and certification for Scottish schools is already done. Individual key areas could be assessed, with badges awarded. These could be grouped together for "unit" awards, which could be further grouped for "course" awards. Indeed, such an approach was investigated by SQA and Borders College as long ago as 2013.

While a system based upon Open Badges might not replace exams entirely – they could become elective for those candidates in need of exam results for university entry – its inherent flexibility would allow achievements to be accredited throughout the school year. It would also reduce the time spent by teachers gathering assessment evidence and completing administrative tasks. And it would do away entirely with the need for teachers to rank students against each other in order to justify their assessment decisions.

Surely all that is worth thinking about?

Drew Burrett is a physics teacher in Scotland

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