With the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams this summer, schools have been asked to compile a basket of evidence when assessing students' grades.
This can include the use of optional tasks based on past papers, set by the boards, as well as relevant classwork and homework. But should schools be running a full suite of mock exams to arrive at grades?
More on GCSEs 2021:
- Teacher assessed grades get green light
- 'Excessive grade inflation' warning
- Teachers relieved of appeals burden
GCSEs 2021: Schools need 'robust data'
At Dame Alice Owen's School, a partially selective state secondary in Potters Bar, Hertfordshire, students have been told that their teacher-assessed grade will rest on performance in unseen papers taken in exam conditions for all of their subjects.
Not only this, in the school's assessment booklet for students, the mock exam papers are given weightings for each subject – for example, two GCSE biology papers, timed at 90 minutes, are worth 50 per cent of the final grade each.
Parent Raphael Walters said: "The most concerning thing is the fact that the results will be the sole basis for determining grades. We think this is incredibly unfair and places undue pressure on the students."
Heidi Drake, a deputy head of English, at a grammar school in South East England told Tes that her school would also be running mock exams in the school hall as usual, "using the papers we assembled for the mocks as we didn’t have them" for Year 11.
The series will be run over a month rather than three weeks to reduce pressure on students, but she added that "the school is very anxious about appeals and so need to have robust data".
"Our mock period is January. They haven’t had those so the only ‘secure’ data is end-of-year exams in 10 and 12, which they ended up doing in September," she said.
GCSE English students would sit four papers in total, she said.
And a parent at The King's School, a boys' grammar in Grantham, told Tes that their child would sit 20 GCSE exams in total with a maximum duration of two hours 15 minutes per paper over the course of three weeks.
Should schools be focused on mock exams?
In some ways, running a full mocks series to arrive at teacher-assessed grades runs counter to the spirit of the guidelines from the Joint Council for Qualifications.
The JCQ says students should be awarded grades based on a "holistic overall" judgement of their work this year – arguably, a suite of three or four papers sat in test conditions does not reflect this.
When the final plans for grading were released in February, it was also stressed that the tasks set by exam boards were completely optional, and that there was "no need" to complete them under exam conditions in school halls.
It was suggested that teachers could use the tasks as part of a class test, but not that multiple past papers should be sat in the school hall.
The optional past papers released by boards were also repeatedly described as not being "mini exams", following the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams.
And Shaun Fenton, head of the independent Reigate Grammar School, has said he will not be running an exam series for this reason, adding: "I believe that if it was possible to base grades on exams then we should have used the usual summer exam series.
"Exams – internal, mocks or whatever – now will be subject to all of the problems that were not able to be solved even with a modified ’normal’ exam series. More problems, in fact, as mini-exams will have all sorts of inconsistencies," he said.
His school will be using class tasks instead, supervised by teachers but with enough scaffolding and support to compensate for losing over 40 per cent of class teaching time.
"The government were clear that exams were not a tenable way forward this year, so how can schools merely invent their own version?" he said.
Mr Fenton stressed that he sympathised with the government having to deal with unprecedented problems, as well as "fellow heads trying to make it work under really difficult and unique circumstances", adding that "no one is to blame".
But he added: "Summer exams will become the irresistible evidence, but if that was OK, we should have had GCSEs and not asked schools to basically write GCSE and A-level exams for every subject in every school – over the Easter holidays!"
"Heads are worried about appeals and complaints, and test results feel more robust, but, even in a normal year, summer exams have all sorts of problems. This is a chance for the profession to take ownership and show how assessment is more than an exam."
And Alaric Govan, head of The Hamble School an 11-16 Hampshire comprehensive said: "We’re not running full mock exams on the basis that the students aren’t preparing for full exams. Instead, each department is running assessments over the remaining time in order to get a range of suitable evidence."
'Certain types of evidence are more robust'
But other heads, defending the practice of holding full mock series, have pointed out that the JCQ guidance itself seems to prefer some types of evidence over others.
Vicky Bingham, headmistress of South Hampstead High School, an independent girls school in North London, said: "When the JCQ guidance says quite clearly that certain types of evidence are more robust, and when you take into account the noise in school corridors, I don’t think it’s surprising or unreasonable that schools are choosing to use this type of assessment."
Indeed, a JCQ spokesperson said that "teachers have the flexibility to choose from a range of evidence. No one type of evidence takes precedence and there’s nothing that says teachers need to set any assessment under exam conditions".
The guidance also states that the external tasks are "flexible activities, but students’ performance should be considered in the light of the conditions in which the activity was completed", and that "where an activity is completed under supervision, for example, the time the student has spent on the task, what materials have helped them and whether they have received any additional support" should be considered when assessing performance.
And it adds: "While there is no one type of evidence that takes precedence, evidence gathered in conditions that enable confidence about the authenticity of the students’ work will give more confidence in the overall holistic judgement. More recent evidence is likely to be more representative of student performance, although there may be exceptions."
This suggests that mock papers held in silence, as recently as possible, would be seen by the boards as more robust and less likely to be queried.
Kieran McLaughlin, head of the independent Durham School, said the practice was fairly widespread: "Most schools I know are doing a number of formal assessments in exam halls or in class. There isn’t much of an alternative if we want to be as fair as we can to all pupils."
Students 'need the experience of sitting an exam'
The fact that schools are operating vastly different systems, with some running full mock series while others run in-class assessments or base judgements on homework, has the potential to create a wide range of inconsistencies in the system,
However, headteacher Chris Edwards said that his school, Brighton Hill Community School, in Basingstoke, will run one paper per subject, because students need the experience of sitting an exam before progressing on to the next stage of their education or training.
And he added that the inconsistency during this year may be inevitable.
"We’re not calling it mock exams, we’re just going to call it a formal assessment period, where they are going to sit one paper per subject in the exam hall under controlled conditions, and we’ve tried to strike the balance of a happy medium," he told Tes.
"I think that the actual process of [sitting papers] in formal conditions is such an important rite of passage for students, and I think we talk about increasing anxiety for them, but I don’t think that’s anything compared to what their anxiety levels will be if they have to sit their first-ever formal exam at AS level or in further or higher education," he said.
Mr Edwards added that the "tragedy of last year" was the media narrative that students had not earned their grades and had simply been "given" them.
"The fact there’s only one paper per subject is beneficial as well because it’s a taster of what they would have had without absolutely beating them with a stick and forcing them to do a load of exams," he said.
He added that certain assignments not completed in exam conditions did seem less reliable.
"Some of us did get some anomalies with some of the assessments that were done at home."
Sitting students in a hall therefore might make sense in compiling robust data that will withstand the appeals process.
"I think as soon as exams were cancelled it was clear there were going to be difficulties in getting fairness across the nation," Mr Edwards said.
Another faculty head said that they needed to run formal assessments because, as with many schools, they lacked enough evidence to support the grades.
They said that at the same point in 2020, they would have had seven or eight timed assessments per class as well as two fully completed mock papers, but they now have just the first half of Year 12 and an autumn mock to assess students on.
As a result, their school will be running two papers for each GCSE and A-level subject, with each subject asked to examine around 60 or 70 per cent of the usual course content.
"My question would be to any schools not doing some kind of substantial timed assessments: what on earth are you basing these on? The danger will come afterwards for them – if exam boards investigate with any kind of rigour, they risk having their grades knocked down," they added.
'Confusing' for parents and students
Headteachers have pointed out that clearer messaging from government on what is and is not permitted this year is needed.
“The JCQ guidance gives teachers flexibility to use a range of evidence in assessing students, enabling them to take into account lost learning as a result of the pandemic," said Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders.
"However, schools and colleges will be acutely aware of the need to be able to provide robust evidence for the grades that they award both because there will be an external quality assurance process and in the event of appeals.
"So it is likely that many [schools] will be running assessments during the first half of the summer term which are sat in exam-style conditions.
"The exact nature of those assessments in terms of the questions they ask and the weighting that is put on them will vary between [schools].
"It is too early to give an overview of what this looks like across the country but we are seeking feedback from our members to help us gain a full picture and to help to support them.
"We understand that all of this will be confusing for parents and students, particularly because they have been told by the government that ‘exams’ have been cancelled, and may not appreciate the distinction between these internal assessments and external exams.
"Clear messaging will be needed from the government to help public understanding of the situation and we will also be endeavouring to provide clarity through our own communications.”
A spokesperson for Ofqual said: "We expect teachers to use a range of evidence to arrive at a grade, and to use their professional judgement when deciding how to assess and grade each student.
"This evidence might include work the student has already completed, mock exam results, homework, or in-class tests.
"The use of the additional assessment materials is optional. Teachers have flexibility to decide if and how to use them, including whether to assess students under exam conditions."