Exclusive: GCSE ‘benchmark tests’ plan B for 2021 exams

Students could sit tests in core subjects in case exams disrupted; other options on the table include fewer papers with more choice and more special consideration

Catherine Lough

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"Benchmark" tests in core GCSE subjects such as maths and English are being considered as a contingency "plan B" in case exams cannot go ahead next year, Tes has learned. 

A source close to the discussions on next year's exams revealed that sitting the tests in a limited range of subjects could be used to allow GCSE pupils to progress onto the next stage of their education, if exams cannot go ahead because of the pandemic.

The news comes as pressure grows on Ofqual to come up with solutions for the 2021 exams season, which Gavin Williamson has insisted should go ahead.

The exams regulator is committed to providing the education secretary, with the advice he needs to be able to decide on "contingency arrangements" for the exams this month.


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Options already being considered by Ofqual are greater levels of choice in exam papers and invigilated mocks sat ahead of the main GCSEs and A-level season, to mitigate Covid disruption to the main exam season.

Advantage over mocks idea

Sources say the "benchmark" test option Tes has been told about is seen as having a clear advantage over the mocks idea. It would not mean schools running a full suite of high-stakes papers earlier in the year, across all subjects, with a resulting cut in teaching time for students.

Instead, students could benchmark tests in a limited number of core subjects such as maths and English. 

A source close to the discussions on next year's exams told Tes: "Among the several things that are being considered by the Department for Education and Ofqual, one is having, let’s call them a benchmarking test, particularly in English and maths at GCSE, taken rather like the national reference test."

They said the tests would be "taken well before the exams are actually sat just in case a significant number of pupils weren’t able to sit the exams in June".

"I think many people would agree that trying to assign grades on the basis of anything other than a properly moderated formal test or exam is very difficult as this year shows," they added.

"Therefore having some form of – it wouldn’t be a full GCSE – but some sort of benchmarking test particularly in those crucial subjects like English and maths, although there are many problems with such a proposal, it might nevertheless provide another safety net, should it be needed."

Impact of more high-stakes tests

However, Tes understands that not everyone in the discussions is convinced they are a good idea. Some argue that schools would need to be given a lot of notice for the extra high-stakes tests and that it could also be unfair for pupils who have missed out on learning time in areas hit disproportionately hard by coronavirus. 

There are also fears about diminished teaching time and that it could lead teachers to focus on teaching to the test, rather than helping students to catch up on lost learning across the board.

One source suggested that "benchmark" tests or mock exams were no longer being considered as serious possibilities.

Fewer exam papers also an option

They said that the plan was instead to include greater "optionality" and allow more special consideration when a full set of exams are run in the summer.

They also suggested that "scalability" was also being looked at –whether the number of papers could be reduced without cutting the content covered.

"Why don’t we just run fewer exams, why don’t we just put all content into one exam instead of three?" they said.

Ofqual has given some idea of what might happen in 2021 this week, saying that exams next year should be "less daunting"

And yesterday, Ofqual chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey said exam grading next year would need to be more "generous" than under normal circumstances to take the "baleful" influence of Covid-19 on the 2021 cohort into account. 

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “We are considering a range of potential contingency options, alongside measures to maximise the opportunity for students to take their exams.”

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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