Exams 2021: So what now?

This blog post was co-authored with Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness and was first published on the CEPEO Blog.

While the uncertainties of a global pandemic make this one of the most volatile periods of education policy in history, if there is one lesson we should all have learned since last March, it is that indecision is costly. This has proven true repeatedly for public health and looks just as relevant for education. As we saw with the exam fiasco of summer 2020, the failure to act decisively led to there being little alternative but to assign students grades based on teachers’ predictions of what they would have achieved. This sub-optimal situation removed any final contribution on the part of the student, and, more importantly, resulted in significant biases across school type and family background. Of course, back in summer 2020, the government had little time for the advance planning that any alternatives (such as ongoing assessment) would have required. But this year, they have no such excuse, and inaction now poses the substantial risk of being left without alternatives again. That is why the government must act now to ensure that we don’t have a repeat performance in summer 2021.

For exams to give all pupils the same chance to succeed, one of the pre-requisites is that they have had the same amount of time to prepare. However, we know that is not the case from looking at patterns in disruption to their studies. While both exam cohorts (year 11 and year 13) missed up to 5 months schooling in the academic year 2019-20, the disruption has continued during this crucial exam year and in much less uniform a manner. Unfortunately, England does not publish data on attendance rates by year group, but we can look more broadly at attendance rates in all state-funded schools by region over the autumn term. The figure below illustrates that while attendance rates started the academic year between 85% and 95%, by mid-November we were seeing rates substantially below this (falling from 88% to 83% on average) driven by widespread – but regionally varying – self-isolation by both individual pupils and education ‘bubbles’. In mid-November, attendance rates were lowest in the North West and Yorkshire. By mid-December, with what we now understand to be the prevalence of the new variant increasing, London, the East, and the South East had all seen stark declines in their attendance rates. In contrast, the South West has remained near the top of attendance rates throughout.

Figure: Weekly attendance in state-funded schools by region, 10th September 2020 – 10th December 2020.
Source: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/find-statistics/attendance-in-education-and-early-years-settings-during-the-coronavirus-covid-19-outbreak

This disruption seems likely to get worse still. The Christmas holidays were anything but a break for schools and teachers, with an announcement on setting up in-school testing released shortly before the end of term (here) and the long-awaited announcement on returning to school made by DfE on December 30th. Secondary schools across the country have now moved to remote learning this week. While the majority of primary schools remain open, an increasing proportion (upwards of 15%) will not open their doors to pupils for the foreseeable future, either under direct DfE instruction through the schools contingency framework, or acting unilaterally over fears for teachers’ and students’ health. The DfE currently state that the majority of schools will re-open on January 18th, but with spiralling infection rates and stretched hospital capacities in every region, this position looks increasingly untenable. We await the Prime Minister’s announcement this evening, but many suspect that all schools will be closed for the foreseeable future.

In a blog post from November (here), we laid out the evidence that points to exams being the best route forward for school pupils in 2021, but advocating important changes (particularly focused on allowing greater flexibility),  given the uncertainty that was already evident at that point. It is becoming increasingly clear that exams, at least in their usual form, cannot go ahead – this makes the changes that we continue to call for vital and urgent. The current exam plans cannot provide the level playing field that it is claimed they will deliver, given the extent of differential learning experiences of those from different regions and backgrounds in this school year alone. So what now?

A levels and GCSEs

The evidence clearly points to avoiding centre or teacher assessed grades where possible. We, therefore, argue that externally set and marked exams remain the fairest option to all pupils taking terminal exams.

But these do not have to take place in the current format proposed, during a three-week period in June 2021. Instead, there is a strong case for more flexible timing for testing pupils, allowing exams to be spread across the summer term and, crucially, allowing pupils to sit these exams at different times to deal with any continuing need for closures during this period. While this will involve more work for exam boards given the need to provide multiple versions of each exam, this is the fairest way to ensure that pupils do not miss out on external assessments. The fact that it requires more work only underlines the need for swift action.

Further, we must ensure that this year’s exams include flexible content. This would help to reduce the unfairness caused by the fact that different schools will have been able to cover different content through interruptions to in-person schooling. These reformed exams would be more like university finals: pupils could be given a wider set of options and be asked to answer a smaller proportion of these, for example, 2 questions from 6 alternatives covering a wide sweep of the curriculum.

This approach would have substantial similarities with that already announced in Wales – also supporting fairness for university applications between applicants from the two countries – and would ensure that pupils can still be awarded grades that they have earned while providing robust information on achievement for universities and future employers. Scotland, on the other hand, has cancelled their exams altogether – with National 5s (the GCSE equivalent) cancelled several months ago, and Highers (the A level equivalent) cancelled just before Christmas. Scotland will instead base awards on teacher judgement, and while this is not an optimal situation, announcing this well in advance gives schools and teachers ample time for ongoing assessment and observation.

Primary school testing

While Key Stage 1 tests have been suspended for 2021, current plans are for Key Stage 2 tests to go ahead, although the school-level results will not be published. Given that these tests are primarily used as indicators of school performance, which is going to be measured with substantial error this year, there are serious questions about their value to bodies such as Ofsted with whom they are still proposed to be shared for accountability purposes. As such, there is a strong case for abandoning these tests altogether given the current circumstances. This would significantly reduce the burden on primary school teachers, who are working under very difficult conditions, and would remove the stress on pupils and parents associated with preparing for these tests under such difficult circumstances.

Action this day

The longer it takes for these steps to be taken, the harder it will be for them to be implemented, until the point where they are no longer feasible. At that point, there is a major risk of a repeat of last year’s fiasco – but without the excuse of not having had time to prepare a better alternative. We’ve seen yet another example today of the decision making process in Whitehall lagging behind that of Holyrood. In the words of the Scottish national anthem, it’s time for the Prime Minister “tae think again.”

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