Ofqual denies “mini exam” plans

What happens if you run a consultation and don't get the answers you were hoping for?

David Kernohan is an Associate Editor of Wonkhe

Simon Lebus, the Interim Chief Regulator at Ofqual, has written a blog post encouraging you to respond to the consultation on the arrangements for 2021 qualifications.

It’s a good idea to do so and you should. The consultation closes at fifteen minutes to midnight on 29 January – this evening, in other words. There have been over 90,000 responses so far. That’s a hell of a popular consultation – and if Ofqual are going to announce plans in the week commencing 22 February its staff have got a lot of reading to do.

Back door exam

It is not often that you get an advance peek at consultation responses – there is a school of thought (no longer reflected in the cabinet office guidance on consultations) that interventions meant to sway potential respondents opinions undermines the process a little – if you need to “clarify” a consultation in process then you’ve either got a badly written consultation or a badly developed underlying idea.

We cut Ofqual some slack here – this document was put together very quickly (a fortnight is an incredible turn-around for something as high profile and detailed as this) and was done so under the malign influence of Gavin Williamson – a man who thinks exams are the fairest way to assess knowledge (sorry, education researchers).

But I was one of many to immediately spot the “back door exams” feel to the proposals. The idea of externally developed assessments – and how exam-ish does “For any paper it had set, an exam board would specify the time that a student should be given to complete it and whether they should have access to any materials, such as a calculator” sound when describing an assessment made “within a school environment” – is at odds with the topline messaging about trusting teachers.

Head on

So when Lebus says

I want to tackle one thing head on – the proposal to have externally-set papers or tasks to help teachers to assess their students objectively. Some have called these ‘mini exams’.

he is not exactly correcting a misconception here. Just as another reminder:

  • Externally set papers provided by exam boards
  • A national reference point
  • Similar in style and format

However, the big difference is that these will only form part of the overall grade. Results are potentially one source of evidence among many – teachers are able to use other evidence to arrive at a mark. There is also proposed latitude about which parts of assessments are used, a choice which could be made by teachers based on what has been taught.

The argument is that these sources of standardised and nationally comparable results are a benchmark that will help teachers identify suitable grades. But that in itself presents a problem.

Anxiety dream

If you are (or if you know someone who is) taking A levels this year, you’ll be worried more about these external elements than anything else. Firstly because of the examish elements, and secondly because even though this is one of many potential sources of evidence it is clearly the most important one.

It will be a brave teacher that discounts such evidence. It will be a brave teacher that adapts marking practice to take account of the issues that students are facing. Teachers know that assessment practice (based on these papers or questions) will be externally quality assured. And the externally set papers will probably form the crux of most appeals – setting national benchmarks for the way attainment settles between grade boundaries.

Though the language on alternatives is there – it feels fairly clear that one of these things is more important than the others. In Wales and Scotland these external papers and their influence are more precisely specified (there’s also the fact that each nation has only one exam board). Ofsted will need to limit the influence of these papers on the final grade to forestall the “mini-exam” critics. Which means that they’ll need to trust teachers – not algorithms.

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