Why are we so reluctant to let go of exams?

High-stakes assessment is harming students – we need to learn from what the rest of the world is doing, says Bill Lucas

Bill Lucas

High-stakes assessment harming students - we need to accept that exams are dead, says Bill Lucas

Today, we have launched Rethinking Assessment in Education: The case for change

The research makes the case for a fundamental shift in thinking about the role of assessment in education. Drawing on evidence from across the world, we show how high-stakes assessment is harming students and that this is increasingly ignored by key stakeholders. 

We need, the report argues, to remind ourselves what matters in education, think more carefully about how we evidence it and then change the assessment system to reflect this shift.

In 2013, the US Gordon commission on the future of assessment in education made a seemingly modest recommendation that assessment should “do no harm”. But the sad truth is that assessment across the world is harming young people. It leads too many students to conclude that they are failures, damages their wellbeing and distracts from the real job of improving educational standards for all young people. 

And, shockingly, as the children’s commissioner reminded us recently, nearly 20 per cent of young people reach the age of 19 without getting five GCSEs, a technical equivalent or an apprenticeship.

Ditching exams for a broader form of assessment

There is a growing consensus that, to thrive in life today, young people need to develop dispositions such as creativity, critical thinking and collaboration, along with high levels of oracy, all grounded in subject discipline or a real-world context. 

Above all, society needs deeper thinking across a range of subjects. 

The Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa) has shown how two of these – collaborative problem-solving and creative thinking – can be reliably assessed. But such dispositions and thinking skills fall through the cracks of our assessment system in England.

Weirdly, in the internet age, most tests in schools still rely on paper and pencil. They mainly examine aspects of knowledge and routine skills. They test students’ ability to remember and write about something, rather than to apply or do the thing they have been learning. 

In England, the two mainstays of assessment are GCSEs and A levels. Neither adequately meets the needs of universities, colleges, employers, teachers, parents or students. 

But, across the world, things are changing. Our competitors are exploring new ways of evidencing the kinds of dispositions they want their citizens to develop at school. These include a greater use of extended investigations, performance-based assessment, on-demand and online assessment and comparative judgment. 

In England, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is the only example that has begun to make its way into the mainstream of schools, but it is only taken by some 30,000 students annually. 

A holistic picture of students' strengths

A number of creative and practical subjects already provide a greater variety of assessment methods, and we can learn a lot from the way universities use project-based and performance-based assessment for students working towards engineering or medical degrees.

The main trend in assessment globally is the increasing use of profiling to paint a more holistic picture of a student’s strengths, just as many employers create a balanced scorecard of an employee’s attributes. 

In the US and Australia, such endeavours are often the results of collaborations between universities, employers, schools and colleges. The Mastery Transcript Consortium is one example, and the New Metrics for Success initiative is another. 

The International Baccalaureate has long used a learner profile as a core part of its evidence gathering, but this is little used in England. 

It’s no longer enough for students to emerge from their formal schooling with a few grades or marks. We owe it to them to give a much more nuanced picture of what they can do. 

Those of us with longer educational memories may recall the National Record of Achievement, a folder full of good intentions to give a more balanced picture of a student's strengths. It failed because the technology to make it work did not exist, and because universities and employers did not want it.

Fast-forward to today, and it is excellent that universities and forward-looking employers are demanding to know more about who young people are and what they can do. The discussion today is not about whether it is time to change our assessment system in England, but about how we should do it.

That’s where we are investing our efforts at Rethinking Assessment, by bringing together evidence and promising practices from across the world. We are actively seeking to build a coalition for change, to tap into the huge expertise in this country and around the world, and are looking for teachers and schools to offer to pilot new forms of assessment in the autumn. Join us here.

Professor Bill Lucas is director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the University of Winchester, and co-founder of Rethinking Assessment. He is the co-chair of the strategic advisory group of the new Pisa test of creative thinking and an acclaimed researcher, educational reformer and author

Rethinking Assessment in Education: The case for change is a collaboration with the Centre for Strategic Education in Australia. Bill tweets as @LucasLearn, and Rethinking Assessment is @rethinkassessmt

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