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Female students opening their exam result envelopes

Wales cancels 2021 A-level and GCSE exams: other UK nations should follow suit

The education minister for Wales, Kirsty Williams, has announced that Welsh school pupils will not take GCSE and A-level exams in 2021. Instead, externally set and marked classroom assessments, which can be taken within a broad window of time, will be used to grade students.

Scotland has already made a similar decision for for its National 5 assessments taken by 15 and 16 year olds, opting for teacher assessment instead – although Higher and Advanced Higher exams will go ahead, a fortnight later than usual.

In Northern Ireland, exams will be pushed back a week, with most GCSEs dropping a module to account for lost learning time.

Exams will also still go ahead in England. Most of these will take place three weeks later than usual, with no slimming down of curricula but with some changes to the format of assessments.

This year, governments should use more flexible forms of assessment such as classroom assessment, which provide a greater choice of topics, to take into account the uneven access to education that students have faced during lockdown.

England and Northern Ireland should follow Wales’s lead and use externally marked classroom assessment for GCSEs and A-levels in 2021.

A fair test?

The UK Department for Education’s insistence that “exams are the best and fairest way of judging students’ performance” reflects a narrow and outdated view of test fairness.

My research with GCSE students has shown that students see choice in assessment as a key element of test fairness. Students in the study thought that a choice of options should be available, as different students would benefit from different routes. For them, a fair test was one that enabled all students to show their knowledge and skills.

This aligns with recent theories of test fairness, which suggest that tests should be designed to enable all students to perform well. As a result, alternative forms of assessment such as coursework and practical assessments, which aim to capture the knowledge and skills of all students, have become more widely used in many countries.

Students in uniform sitting in exam hall facing away
Exams are not necessarily the fairest way of assessing students. Lincoln Beddoe/Shutterstock

A problem with the “one size fits all” approach of exams is that students have very different educational experiences. Working-class children have fared much worse under the Conservative government’s education reforms, so that there are now major inequalities in the pedagogy and curriculum offered to students from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

This year, these inequalities have been compounded by a global pandemic, which means that many of these children have not had their fundamental right to education fulfilled.

When differences between children’s educational experiences become this vast, we must question whether assessments are really providing us with useful information that can be used to make valid comparisons between students. When this happens, flexibility must be built into the system to ensure that all students are able to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Contingency measures

The UK government has not yet released details of the contingency measures it will use if the coronavirus pandemic forces exams to be cancelled again. However, The Guardian reported in October that schools in England will be required to hold “rigorous mocks” in case of exam cancellations.

There are several problems with this approach. If exams are cancelled and the mocks are used to determine grades, the assessment period will essentially have been brought forward by months, at a time when many students are struggling to catch up with last year’s courses. Mocks would also eat into scarce learning time and would potentially put students under even more pressure.

Classroom assessment is not a perfect solution. There will be concerns that students who have access to greater support at home will do better at these assessments, despite the fact that they are done in class.

There will also be anxiety about the narrowing of the curriculum to one or two course topics. But given the extraordinary circumstances this year, the priority must be to ensure that students are only assessed on content they have had an opportunity to learn. The best way of doing this is to set classroom assessment with a choice of tasks.

Classroom assessments can be rigorous. The full details of the new assessments in Wales have yet to be released, but they will be externally marked, to address concerns about how internal assessment may be biased against particular groups.

If the UK government refuses to change course, students in England will end up with exam results that are simply not fit for purpose. The results will tell us more about the impact of COVID-19 upon students than about their subject knowledge and skills.

It would be hard to justify using these grades to make decisions about entry to universities and further education colleges. If they are used for these purposes, it will be the most disadvantaged students who lose out, once again.

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