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Government must act now to ensure reliable exams for 2021

Vicky Mose, Director of Global Products and Services, ABE
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Teenage years is a time when many people will suffer from anxiety and related mental health problems. This has been compounded by coronavirus and the unstable times we are living through. To add to all this uncertainty by cancelling exams, changing results, and changing them back again seems beyond cruel. Most people will have been moved by interviews with bright young people devastated by their unfairly downgraded mark.

It is a terrible way for anyone to end their school life and must never be allowed to happen again. It is against this background that we have published our White Paper on adapting assessments, which has the following recommendations:

  • The government must identify and scale the best practice examples which have emerged in the sector.
  • The government must work directly with education sector professional membership bodies and associations to convene an Advisory Panel which will steer policy.

Why adapted assessment is the best solution for our times

The UNESCO Global Education Coalition reports that 58 out of 84 surveyed countries postponed or rescheduled exams. Only 23 introduced widespread methods of alternative assessment, such as online or home-based testing. The government needs to talk to those organisations which provided successful assessments in 2020 and draw its learning from them. At the outset of the pandemic OFQUAL offered awarding bodies different options for providing assessment, they could delay, calculate grades or adapt. Arguably, this approach caused uncertainty and differing responses across the sector. At ABE calculated grades were never an option and not a route we would support. Aside from the very obvious problems it has caused in the UK, British education is a global export and we need to be mindful that in some countries people are vulnerable to bribery and exploitation.   In addition, calculated grades place an unfair burden on tutors which could potentially jeopardise trust between a student and their teacher.

We also do not believe delaying assessments is an appropriate response. When the pandemic struck, students were in the middle of their studies and they needed to continue their learning journeys so they could benefit from the economic and social advantages that education provides. Delay could mean that some of the most disadvantaged leaners drop out of education permanently.  Research from The Malala Fund reveals the pandemic will have lasting effects for the most marginalised girls and estimates that globally 20-million more secondary school-aged girls could remain out of school after the medical emergency has passed. 

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To avoid disadvantaging young people, it is essential that planning for adapted assessments, such as open-book exams (OBE) which offer a reliable alternative to timed in-venue exams, begins now. Doing this will overcome the worry of local lockdowns and potential COVID-19 spikes. OBE can be worked on at home and with limited internet access if necessary, providing a safe and inclusive solution to ensure that no one is left behind whatever their circumstances.

ABE has produced a White Paper on adapting assessment to start the process of sharing best practice across the sector in preparation for 2021. When ABE introduced OBE for the first time in June 2020, they were unknown to most of its colleges and learners, so ABE ran workshops, produced new resources, and instigated an extensive communication programme. As a result, there was a strong performance across the world with pass rates right where they should be, and based on actual marked exams, delivered on time. What this demonstrates is that with clear communication and the right support learners can cope with new assessment formats. In the changed global environment, there is no need to stick with the old way of doing things, it is time to focus on what is right for young people in today’s world. This challenge goes beyond adapting assessment. For many, remote learning is only effective through access to learning technology. Even though this technology has been available for well over a decade, only 2% of the world’s learning activity is digitalised. It’s time to ask why this and start the acceleration towards new models of teaching and learning.

Introducing OBEs has had it challenges. There are lessons learned that we can share as, no doubt, can other professional bodies who like us have adapted at pace to provide the best assessment solution for their sector. That is why we call on the government to use the experience and expertise of the education sector professional bodies, rather just relying on regulators (or computer algorithms). We need an advisory panel of education industry experts to help the make the best choices for 2021.

We call on government to adopt our recommendations. Coronavirus may be with us for some time, that is something we can’t yet control -but ensuring that education and assessment is not delayed or disrupted is something we can and must achieve. There is time to adapt assessments, but the government does need to act now. A policy of ‘wait and see’ will not get the job done. Nor will it restore public confidence in qualifications after the 2020 exam fiasco. Instead, look at the success stories from 2020, and introduce a proper strategy to safeguard young people, deliver reliable assessments and ensure robust results for the next year’s cohort of students.

By Vicky Mose, Director of Global Products and Services, ABE

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