'The rest of life in the UK is in the digital era yet our exam system is stuck in the industrial age'

6th December 2014 at 06:00

Cliff Beevers, co-founder of the e-Assessment Association and emeritus professor of mathematics at Heriot-Watt University, writes:

This was a record-breaking year for GCSEs and A-levels, but for all the wrong reasons. Ofqual released its figures on the number of students who appealed their GCSE and A-level results: more people appealed and more grades were overturned than ever before.

These figures tell us two things: confidence in the system is at an all-time low and the paper-based assessment methods behind the qualifications are not fit for purpose.

Nothing less than a complete cultural shift in the exam system is required – and next September’s GCSE reforms will give us just the opportunity.

Better assessment methods are not just an idea: they are already being put to successful use in sectors from medicine and law to technology and finance. Below are examples of some proven alternatives to the current outdated exam system.

At a critical point in the learning life of young people, GCSEs should be about breadth and wider skills, not ticking boxes. The one-size-fits-all approach is not working; it is failing our young people. The structure at the moment is aimed at the median level of students, leaving behind lower-ability pupils and not challenging the brightest and best.

Incorporating adaptive testing into our schools will allow assessment to be tailored to the ability of the student. Adaptive testing and continual learning will help to ensure that students develop at their own level and pace, and that students of all abilities are stretched and challenged. The advantage of this is that all questions come from the same question bank, so the results can be graded and standardised nationally.

As pupils develop their skills, they benefit from an iterative, interactive representation that tells the story of their progression and achievements. The concept of e-portfolio is ideal for supporting coursework and synoptic end-of-course assessments. The portfolios can be assessed, verified, graded and given feedback by multiple stakeholders, enriching the learning process for students.

Schools have historically resisted the introduction of such approaches, partly because of concerns about ensuring the authenticity of the work (i.e. that the coursework really was done by the claimed learner) and partly because the solution to this first concern has often lead to a "controlled assessment" approach, which has proven complex for teachers to manage. Innovations in e-assessment technology have now overcome these issues and can facilitate this highly valid form of assessment that captures progression and capability on the part of the learner.

Employers commonly report that the schooling our young people receive does not prepare them for the working world, the two most common missing skills being communication and teamwork.

Schools could look at how further and higher education providers are increasingly measuring employability skills. Innovative, evidence-based e-assessment technologies are being used to capture and examine knowledge, understanding and practical abilities, which are directly relevant to the workplace.

The above three suggestions are examples of how technology could help to change the way GCSEs are assessed for the better. However it is important to note that summative (fixed end-of-course) and formative (test as you learn or test when ready) assessment are not mutually exclusive.

E-assessment makes sure that students get the outcome they deserve: the right people pass and fail; the grades awarded are fair; the results are honest, defensible, reflect the attributes that stakeholders value and can be relied on.

We will continue to limit the potential of schoolchildren until our exams are overhauled with tried and trusted e-assessment techniques. The rest of life in the UK is in the digital era yet our education system is still stuck in the industrial age. The worlds of work, learning and play have embraced technology to improve standards and productivity – why is assessment so different?

The Scholar programme in Scotland is leading the way, with full online courses available in all secondary schools, public and private, for 90 per cent of the examinable AS and A2-equivalent curriculum with formative assessment at its core. Recent enhancements to the Scholar portfolio include National 5 mathematics using the precepts of Curriculum for Excellence, at a level similar to GCSEs. So what is the rest of the UK waiting for?

Unless we substantially alter the assessment of GCSE and A-levels, then next year will be another record-breaking year and so will 2016. Let’s make 2015 a record-breaking year for all the right reasons.


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