Let’s be clear, this has never happened before. And while a comprehensive literature review is being established about those who may have predicted the outbreak of Covid-19 – Nostradamus, Koontz and Gates top my Google search currently – none of them went into the specific implications of not holding examinations in the UK or around the world.
In these circumstances, the challenge faced by exam boards here in the UK is not just to provide a mechanism for awarding a whole range of different qualifications in the absence of, often, the primary means of assessment, but to do so in a way that schools, students, parents and others can have confidence in the results.
The decision to cancel exams involved urgent and carefully-considered discussion. As crucial as it was, it was just that – discussion and an announcement. By contrast, the scale of the action needed to design, put in place and operate an alternative to examinations has been huge.
The combined assessment expertise of the exam boards, along with the regulator, Ofqual, has been focused on developing an effective approach for awarding GCSEs, AS and A levels quickly and at a time of extraordinary disruption to everyday working. The model now developed also forms the basis of the method Cambridge Assessment International Education is using for many of its qualifications that are taken by students here in the UK, and will, as far as possible, also apply to vocational and technical qualifications usually taken alongside or instead of GCSEs, AS and A levels.
But it does not yet have a name. And that’s leading to some serious confusion. Some commentators are leaping in to contrast and falsely oppose "examinations" and "teacher assessment" – as if they are polar opposites. We’ve many times before seen harmful pendulum swings in thinking about education, now is definitely the time to avoid them. "No exams this summer" still means a huge amount of work has to be done to relate each pupil’s performance to a national standard. This is essential to the status and currency of each and every grade.
The false opposition of "teacher assessment" and "exams" simply misrepresents what needs to be done and what will be done. The actual process that is being followed will combine the professional judgement of teachers with the unique ability of exam boards to look across schools and colleges to link individual judgements to a national standard.
What's in a name?
We do need a clear name for it – and "standardised centre assessment" or "standardised teacher assessment" gets to the heart of what is being done: human judgement informed by robust statistics. Initially, teachers will use evidence and their judgement to grade every student entered in each subject in their school or college to produce centre assessment grades.
These are the grades teachers feel students would most likely have achieved if they had sat their exams and completed any non-exam assessment. Teachers will also rank their students in each grade by expected attainment, from those most likely to attain the grade down to those who are less secure at that grade.
To make sure the final grades awarded this summer are as fair as possible across all schools and colleges, exam boards will use additional data to standardise these teacher judgements. In effect, this means looking at prior attainment of student cohorts in previous assessments and the past results of individual schools and colleges.
As a result, the grades produced by some schools and colleges may be adjusted upwards or downwards depending on how severe or generous they are compared to others. The ability of exam boards to be able to ensure a level playing field in this way is only possible because of the way assessment has been conducted in this country in the past, which has provided a deep and rich set of historical data that can be consulted in these unexpected circumstances.
Let’s avoid naive commentary and recognise the enormity of the action which has been required – at every level in the system – to get in place a research-informed, robust process. What we collectively are doing as a nation is impressive – and we need a good name for it. For me "standardised teacher assessment" sounds right.
Tim Oates is group director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment, the parent of the OCR exam board