We need an assessment system that enables all students to demonstrate their subject knowledge and understanding

23 Jun

By Deborah Lawson, Voice General Secretary, for SecEd, 16 June 2016, and Your Voice, August 2016

The exam season was, as usual, accompanied by renewed concerns about marking, grading and appeals – and rightly so now that terminal exams are the only means of assessment. National exams are high stakes and run the risk of schools becoming exam factories, narrowing the curriculum whilst comparable outcomes change, rather than eradicate, ‘gaming’ of the system and grade inflation.

Whilst terminal examinations may have a role to play, the decision to use them as the sole means of assessment seems to be driven by the accountability system, rather than by the best interests of students or what is needed in order to assess the widest range of learning outcomes.

Non-exam work is essential for learning and demonstrating knowledge and understanding of key aspects of a subject. It also helps students, especially those who struggle with traditional learning and assessment, to engage enthusiastically with, and demonstrate their knowledge of, particular subjects. It is widely accepted that terminal exams prevent many young people from working at their best, and contribute to the very real and increasing mental health issues experienced by them.

The decision of Ofqual, following consultation, to change the GCSE and A level examination appeal process has already sown the seeds of controversy. GCSE, AS and A level marking reviews and appeals: 10 things you need to know, published by Ofqual recently, is unlikely to eliminate this, but will it produce a fairer system – or is change itself the issue?

The only way to find out is to test it, something which may not seem fair to the thousands of students who may – and students can now appeal directly as a result of the change – wish to challenge the marking of their papers and subsequent grade.

By Ofqual’s own admission, the research on which they based the decisions on the review of marking, which aims to improve fairness for all, is a complex area. The ‘10 things’ document is more easily digestible, but does not wrest the change from the jaws of controversy or challenge about fairness.

The document starts with reassurances – that all markers are specially trained, most of them experienced teachers, and that exam boards have safeguards. Thus making an appeal is an additional layer of safeguard.

Further reassurance is given that changes are not an attempt to reduce the number of reviews requested by schools, and that students should not worry that a ‘wrong’ mark will not be corrected.

More debatable, given the high stakes involved, is that papers will be reviewed to ensure that they are marked in accordance with the exam board scheme, not remarked, which Ofqual research suggests can often produce more generous (or fairer?) marks. Review is therefore about compliance with the process employed, not the marks awarded. This, together with the recognition that there is often no single correct mark, means that – given the high stakes and that one mark can determine a grade – the change may not be considered fair by everyone.

The need for change is generally accepted, but change when it happens is often contentious. The exam system is far from flawless. Ofqual is no stranger to challenge and controversy on the matter; comparable outcomes and grade inflation are all familiar issues. A process which demands system-compliance for statistical purposes and has little, if any, room for professional judgement serves students poorly and promotes disempowerment of a profession.

Until we have an assessment system that enables all students to demonstrate their subject knowledge and understanding appropriately, and which is sufficiently reliable to be accepted by universities and employers, it is likely that inequality in some form will continue to exist. So too will gaming, unless the exam system is uncoupled from a school accountability regime restricted by EBacc.


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