In January, UK education secretary Gavin Williamson announced that GCSE and A-level exams in England would not go ahead. Now, Williamson has outlined further information about how assessments for pupils will take place.
Teachers’ judgements will be at the heart of grading decisions this year, based on a range of possible assessment methods including coursework, mock exams, essays and in-class tests.
Williamson emphasised that fairness and trust in teachers will be central to the assessment approach. Teachers will also have the option to use a common set of questions based on past exams and prepared by exam boards – but these, along with guidance and marking criteria, will not be available until the end of March.
The use of a range of assessment methods is to be commended. It reflects the fact that different methods can suit different students, while also giving all students a richer variety of ways to demonstrate their achievements. The involvement of teachers in assessment is also welcome, because teaching, learning and assessment are not separate activities, but are very much dependent on one another.
What’s more, the government has stated that there will be a quality assurance process undertaken by exam boards to ensure consistency across schools and to identify malpractice. And this process will not be based on an algorithm like last year’s disastrous attempt at moderation, or pegged to past results.
If this new quality assurance approach means that we are finally abandoning a norm-based system of assessment in which results depend on where a student comes in a ranking, then this is also excellent news. It also does far more to allay concerns about so-called “grade inflation” than simply comparing grades between years, which may not take account of improved levels of attainment.
However, there are significant problems with the government’s approach to A-level and GCSE assessments in 2021. It has failed to be timely, and remains, even after today’s announcements, lacking in transparency.
Timeliness is essential to fair assessment, and students should know as early as possible how they will be assessed. It is incredibly out of date, and contrary to research on assessment to disconnect assessment and learning.
Students should have an understanding of how they will be assessed as they learn, so the two processes can support one another. This is hard to achieve during a global pandemic, but the significant delay in cancelling exams in England, compared with earlier decisions in Scotland and Wales, has exacerbated the problem.
Second, timeliness is essential for teacher preparation. Again, research on assessment is clear that it is not only closely linked to learning, but also to teaching. It is only reasonable that a teacher supporting a student’s preparation for an assessment should know how the assessment will be done. But the truly staggering aspect of the announcement is that teachers will not be given marking criteria, guidance or training from exam boards until the end of the spring term.
Timeliness and transparency are closely related. The lateness of government plans to reveal the details of both marking criteria and quality assurance processes seriously impairs the genuine and meaningful transparency of their approach.
It is perfectly appropriate that the “trust” in teachers is to be mediated by some quality assurance mechanism. But without explicit details of how this will be done, I remain concerned that exam boards are being given power without clear accountability.
Focus on fairness
Gavin Williamson has made very different claims about assessment fairness. He has stated that this year’s arrangements, based on teacher assessments, are all about fairness.
However, in the period following last summer’s results crisis, the position of the UK government appeared to remain fixed on a view that exams, and exams alone, are the fairest form of assessment. Gavin Williamson repeatedly made this claim, even doing so even at the very moment he cancelled exams for 2021.
This belief rests on assumptions rather than evidence, and reflects the way in which exams are often considered to be a neutral form of judging student ability. But no form of assessment is neutral, and all involve making choices between competing priorities.
The problem with exams is that those who claim they are fair assume they are reliable, and that consistent marking is easier to achieve. But they are not considering whether exams are the best way to demonstrate particular knowledge and skills. The dominance of exams within the English system reflects highly politicised values and judgements rather than innate educational worth.
A central pillar of this year’s approach is to trust teachers and schools as the people who know their students best – but this emphasis on teachers is at considerable odds with the government’s continuing focus on exam boards when making decisions. The government has been working with the exam boards, according to Williamson’s comments in Parliament, while teachers are left waiting to find out what they will be required to do.
This year, the government may well be trying to do the best it can for A-level and GCSE students in very difficult circumstances. But entrenched assumptions and failures of timeliness and transparency significantly reduce our ability to judge whether or not a fair system has been put in place.