From education to employment

It’s time for an assessment system that more fairly reflects what our students and society need

Robin Bevan

The debate about equitable reliable assessment in schools and colleges has moved centre stage this week. For this to serve any purpose, it needs to look beyond simplistic assertions.

It’s not good enough to say that ‘exams are the best fairest’, as Gavin Williamson insists on doing, without also recognising their flaws. It’s insufficient to highlight weakness in teacher assessment, without acknowledging its effectiveness in informing reliable grading. We will never get what we want – and our students need – without a more sophisticated debate.

A million students across the United Kingdom received grades for their GCSEs, A-levels, Highers, BTECs and other qualifications. The grades awarded were assigned by teachers, with only modest adjustments after submission. They drew on evidence of tasks completed by students at home, in class, and under examination conditions. It ought to go without saying, but sadly needs to be repeated, that these grades are well-deserved and largely trustworthy.

Any teacher who has witnessed the extraordinary efforts of their students, under lockdown and through remote learning, knows that this cohort of learners is characterised by an exceptional resilience.

It is self-evident that there will be isolated individual cases where a student’s performance has been unfairly assessed; but compare that to established examination approaches where 1 in 4 grades is deemed to be unreliable, according to OfQual’s own analysis.

Results days, this year, have also been accompanied by cries of ‘grade inflation’ as if changes in the grade distribution invalidates this year’s process. It doesn’t.

In fact, it shines an informative beam of light on the system of restricted grade allocation that – in normal years – assigns grades on relative positioning, not an actual exam performance. As it stands, a candidate may do really well in their A-level examinations but their chances of a particular grade depend on how many others, across the country, do better than they did! Again, there’s a well-understood solution: setting specific threshold criteria for each grade rather than predetermining how many will pass. If it can work for the driving test, and it does, it can be made to work for public examinations!

Grades awarded this year reflect the judgement of professional educators as to the best level each of their students sustained during the course of their study. Surely that has many merits, compared to the vagaries of examination experience: where relative levels of candidate’s self-confidence and short-term memory recall play a greater part in predicting grades than expertise in the subject being examined. Potentially, at least, teacher assessed grades provide a fairer reflection.  

Our traditional examination system is far from perfect. Not only does it depend on repeated one-off performances in an endless series of written papers, over many weeks; but also, the papers are designed to be just at the upper limit of difficulty for the most-able candidates. This serves the A* student very well and opens the door to further academic study at their preferred university. It leaves, in its wake, candidates with real potential scrabbling with as few as one-third of the marks to secure a pass. For many young people, there are very few qualification opportunities at all that credit their learning, however limited.

Equitable reliable assessment harnesses the best elements of teacher assessment, portfolio evidence, graduated tasks and final examinations. Employers, students, parents and educators – for example through the 2021 Independent Assessment Commission –  are increasingly recognising the need to adjust our approaches to incorporate a greater variety of authentic assessment opportunities. This will serve a wider variety of pupil interests and will look to include a realistic appraisal of vital attributes in communication, teamwork, creativity and problem-solving.

Solving these assessment dilemmas comes neither unaltered from this year nor undiluted from the past. It’s time to learn from the best and worst of what has happened in the past couple of years and pre-pandemic. We can then move forward with intelligent insight developing an assessment system that more fully and fairly reflects what our students and society need for the future.

By Robin Bevan 

Robin Bevan is an experienced headteacher, having been at Southend High School for Boys – an ‘outstandingly successful’ school – since September 2007. He is the National Education Union (NEU) National President for the 2020/21 academic year and a member of the Independent Assessment Commission.

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