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2020 shows us that high-stakes exams have a lot to answer for

For Alison Shaw, the trouble in this years admissions round stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the purposes of assessement
This article is more than 3 years old

Alison Shaw is Professor of Practice for Student Success and Progression at Newcastle University. She is an experienced ex-secondary headteacher, and writes in a personal capacity

As I write (or rather re-write) this piece, the situation for students and HEIs is changing rapidly.

Gone is the now-demonised algorithm – centre-assessed grades have taken centre stage. As youngsters await their GCSE results on Thursday, they will feel reassured to a degree, but the situation we are left with is far from reassuring in itself. Exhausted educators across the phases are left surveying the carnage, clearing up and preparing for the new term.

The system vs the student

We should remember that this time of year routinely sees examination cohorts subject to national standardisation of the high-stakes qualifications used to judge their worth. This year has shown the process for what it really is – the trade-off between the integrity of “the system” and the interests and futures of young learners was a disaster for everyone.

Young people and their families remain variously confused, distressed, and angry. Employers look on in astonishment, and universities are reeling after days of trying to be flexible and supportive for students while hemmed in by very real safety considerations. In some cases providers and courses are at serious risk of instability from the rush for perceived elite quality.

The cancellation of exams

On 18 March, Gavin Williamson’s cancellation for 2020 of school performance tables was clearly the only responsible course of action, but cancelling exams was the first fail in a mounting series of poor decisions. It underestimated not only what young people and their teachers invest in preparation for examinations but what the exams mean for students.

Examinations are the definitive opportunity, for the want of anything better, for a student to show their worth. For many, the struggle to reach the stage they had achieved by March had been monumental and even if examinations were going to be a further ordeal, their removal still meant these students were stranded with no points of reference against which to navigate their next steps. At its simplest, the announcement had a shattering impact on young people’s reasons to go on learning. Many of them have done little academic work since March, and some none at all. This has serious implications for their transition to whatever they are going on to do next, not least if they are progressing to higher education.

Access to university

Acting as an adviser on the Clearing phone-lines over recent days has been a harrowing experience – although much less for me and other advisers than for many of our young interlocutors. The process itself, however, notwithstanding the compassion and flexibility shown by universities, has not been dissimilar to previous years. As long as grades in one-off examinations predominate in league tables and provide the normative ranking given to a young person and the license for us to describe them as “quality” (or not), our students’ real capabilities will be underestimated and overlooked.

Our reliance on teacher predictions in a pre-qualification application system has been known for a very long time to be a weak basis for offer-making, not because teachers are unreliable, but because there is already mystification in the examination system – grade boundaries move, standardisation happens each year, and young people do not make linear progress through their learning. UCL published only this month a working paper reminding us of how difficult it is– for humans and for machines – to predict grades but also of the particular detriment that predictions have for higher achieving students in comprehensive schools compared to their counterparts in selective schools.

Continuation and success

It is difficult to know how the year ahead is going to unfold for our 2020 intake. What we do know, however, is that our new students are going to need more help than usual in settling into their learning again. Universities have been working flat-out to prepare for this, but it takes resources to do it equitably and to ensure the needs can be met of students confronting a range of barriers.

We can expect, too, that what we already know about the impact on students’ confidence of receiving confusing or negative messages early in their academic career may be exaggerated this year. They are going to go on needing our support and understanding until we have helped them “fledge” – and they can truly take flight again as learners.

Moving forward

If we agree that youngsters have had a raw deal over recent months, culminating in a storm of public outrage over the fate of those in year groups subject to high-stakes qualifications, we should consider what can be learnt for the future.

We should celebrate that the proportion of so-called underrepresented students being accepted for a place in higher education has risen this year, but there is still far more to be done to achieve the kind of fair and transparent system we need if we are to open up the right opportunities for all . Reviews are already in hand to examine university admissions and these will be an opportunity to us to bring insights from this year and insist on real improvement. We might envisage a renewed system in which the learner’s interests are placed at the centre, and partnerships collaborating to support attainment and transition across the phases are freed of competitive rivalries and league table distortions.

Post-qualification offer-making – if that is the direction we go in – need not preclude pre-qualification application of a rich and positive nature in which criterion- rather than norm-referenced baselines help universities and young people understand whether sufficient levels of mastery have been achieved to enable successful transition to the next phase.

What are we measuring?

That assessment of, and for, learning needs to be developed is now beyond question – again across the phases. We have both the expertise and the knowledge already to make powerful, positive change if we can cease to confuse assessment with qualifications, and consider the range of purposes and therefore of methodologies for assessing learning.

Traditional high-stakes exams are out of date. They distort the purpose of learning and the focus of teaching. It is educational continuity and learning which matter – not the normative sorting of learners into rank order for which the education system was set up such a very long time ago. We need to and can create continuity, smooth transitions and sightlines into the future.

Investing everything in one-off assessment events has been shown this year to be risky as well as inadequate. If one good thing were to emerge from the distressing chaos in which we find ourselves mired today it would be a renewed focus on the learner and on learning, as opposed to testing, and on how we assess the extent to which what we set out to teach has, indeed, been learned.

3 responses to “2020 shows us that high-stakes exams have a lot to answer for

  1. One rather obvious thing that has only just struck me is that as soon as it became clear that we were not going to be able to hold exams for our university courses, we didn’t just scrap them and put nothing in their place. We put an immense amount of effort into developing alternative assessments to allow students to demonstrate that they had met learning outcomes. In many cases, these have proved so successful that we are likely to continue with more ‘alternative assessments’ and fewer exams even if/when exams become possible again. Why was it beyond the wit of the A Level exam boards to devise alternative ways of assessing students’ learning, which – even if they might not have been directly comparable in terms of outcomes (and arguably if the system remained norm-referenced that would be less significant anyway) – would have kept students engaged, encouraged more learning, and, maybe, even pointed a way towards better ways of assessing in future. Could it have been because of the government’s avowed fondness for mass unseen exams over any other form of assessment?

  2. It has always been my opinion that final exams are an unfair way of assessing a students ability or skill level, this is more a test of memory and favours those that excel in stressful situations. A full year assessment is a much fairer method of measuring students ability and skill set. I believe grades should be awarded on the work that students do over the school year rather than on 1 final exam that could literally throw them off to the point of failure.

  3. There is an argument for as well as against high stakes testing. The pros include enhanced student motivation, better security, assessment by a neutral 3rd party, and increased teacher accountability.

    Maybe the assessed grades would have been better received had the stakes themselves been lowered. OfS stopped universities from making offers unconditional and imposed a number cap. These were bad decisions supported by many commentators on this site.

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