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'The world has moved on, leaving public exams behind'

It's not even certain the exams system will catch up with the keyboard before we're all using voice activation technology, writes one leading educationist

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It's not even certain the exams system will catch up with the keyboard before we're all using voice activation technology, writes one leading educationist

Across the land for the last few weeks, students have been gathering in large groups, sitting in serried ranks separated by regulation spaces, all facing a big clock. At a given signal each student, working in splendid intellectual isolation, was ready to apply pen to paper.

Students with more to write are bestowed with treasury tags, the name of which, like the format of traditional testing, seems lost in time.

The world has moved on, leaving public exams behind. Students habituated to working on screens are left hoping their handwriting holds up to the strain. But public exams face bigger challenges, in terms of key questions of how, when, what and why.

How? Awarding bodies have failed to find a way of administering high-stakes exams digitally. Marking on screen eases the admin, but the breakthrough awaits candidates routinely sitting exams in a manner reflecting how they have studied the course, and how they are likely to work in future.

Access arrangements will eventually catch up with what is now most students’ “normal way of working”. They might conceivably catch up with the keyboard before we are all using voice activation technology. Just ask Alexa.

Then there is the one-size-fits-all format. Tiered papers and extra time only go so far. Many mainstream exams could be made adaptive – questions being adjusted to the level candidates have reached in previous questions.

Of course, this would not be applicable to more discursive responses, but adaptive formats would seem appropriate to other question types.

When: Some students are ready to sit the terminal exam sooner than others. Why force them to wait until summer?

Assessment "when ready" would be possible if exams were delivered digitally, and might suit a competency-based approach. Grading and the maintenance of comparable standards over time would be more difficult for the exam boards, but surely not impossible.

What: Once in the exam hall, the student, who had been part of a study group, is now in an individualistic struggle, pitting her against all comers. Collaboration (increasingly valued in the world of work) cannot be directly assessed, despite the fact that teaching (and increasingly learning) are essentially social activities.

Traditional tests cannot hope to mirror ways of working in the "real" world; and schools, in seeking faithfully to prepare students for tests, do less than they could to prepare students for their future roles.

And that brings us to the biggest question of all: why?

This is partly a recursive question – why do we test what we do, in the way we do, when we do? But there is a meta-question in the "why".

To be sure, it turns out that the more anachronistic our public exam format seems, the larger the most fundamental question seems to loom.

Take GCSE: the egregiously antique format only makes any sense at all if it really matters that we test everyone exhaustively at the age of 16. If the answer is that we don’t, the system no longer appears charmingly old-fashioned; it is just plain decrepit.

Dr Kevin Stannard is the director of innovation and learning at the Girls' Day School Trust. He tweets as @KevinStannard1

For more columns by Kevin, visit his back catalogue

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