Exam fever: more coursework and less reliance on final tests would make it easier to award accurate grades

Tina Isaacs and Mary Richardson.

Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson announced the cancellation of this year’s GCSEs and A level examinations. “We will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve for their academic career”, Mr Johnson said.

The qualifications regulator, Ofqual, has not yet stated how this might be done but it has pledged to ‘work through the detail’ urgently with the Department for Education. As former employees of both Ofqual and an examination board before joining UCL we couldn’t be more sympathetic to their quandary; examinations and awarding are highly complex processes and subject to continual scrutiny and criticism.  Coming up with plausible grades for students who have been studying away for two years and will now face no examination to determine their achievements, is not a task to be taken lightly.

While extraordinary, the current context does put into sharp relief the risks in heavy reliance on end of course exams, especially when combined with a diminution of teacher assessment. And this is exactly where we currently find ourselves, in relation to both A levels and GCSEs.

In January 2013 the government reformed A levels reverting to linear programmes with examinations after two years. AS qualifications (examinations at the end of the first year) were officially redundant.  While some universities argued that this would mean making offers based largely on GCSE results and that having AS results was helpful when making offers, the government stuck to its guns and the AS levels, while still available, retreated over the horizon.

Not only did the qualifications revert to end of course assessment, the government severely curtailed coursework in A levels and also ended almost all coursework in GCSEs (with the exception of more practical subjects such as music).  Until these changes, students were formally assessed on essays in English, research in history and fieldwork in geography.  Crucially, these changes challenged the value of teacher judgement and have had a detrimental, and unfounded, impact on the perception of teacher professionalism.

If GCSEs and A levels were still modular there would be lots of information on which to base decisions about what grades to give students. Don’t get us wrong – modularity certainly had its drawbacks, especially for GCSE, where students could face over 30 assessments (the qualifications had four modules; students generally take between 7 and 10 GCSEs).  However, modularisation meant that, in general, students accumulated formal assessment evidence over a two year period. The picture is much clearer for AS and A levels – before modularity’s demise, they, too, were four units – two at AS and two at A2, and by this time in the year students would have accumulated grades for at least two and perhaps three of the units. Figuring out an appropriate grade to award would not be easy, but it would be possible.

Ironically, those students who this country values least – those on vocationally-related courses – will have the most reliable evidence available on their work.  These courses have remained modular and are assessed through a combination of teacher judgement and external examinations. Over their two year programmes many will have ‘banked’ both internal (teacher) – and external (exam board) judgements.

While no one could have predicted that COVID-19 would strike and schools and colleges would be forced to close, now that this has come to pass it has shone a light on the myriad risks in strongly privileging assessment by end of course exams.  We hope that these extraordinary circumstances provide new opportunities to look at how we assess and award the educational achievements of our young people.

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Posted in accountability and inspection, Teaching, learning, curriculum & assessment
One comment on “Exam fever: more coursework and less reliance on final tests would make it easier to award accurate grades
  1. Ruth A says:

    Excellent thanks both of you … exactly what I’ve been thinking over the past few days! Welsh Government stuck to the ‘older’ system and are now in a far better position to extrapolate to ‘final’ grades than we are in England. Why have we gone back(wards)?

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