This blog post was co-authored with Lindsey Macmillan and Gill Wyness and was first published on the CEPEO Blog.
Given the widespread disruption to learning this academic year and the substantial risk of continued disruption to schooling into the summer term, the government were right to take the decision to cancel exams in England in their usual form – indeed having done so earlier as many were calling for would have made the implementation of a wider range of alternatives feasible. But now that the government, working with Ofqual, have turned to decide how GCSE and A level grades should be awarded this year, what should they do? In our recent blog we made the case that assessment should be flexible in terms of timing and content, but that it should continue to be externally set and marked, to ensure fairness and rigour.
Unfortunately, the government’s new proposals do not take that message on board and instead take teacher assessment as a given. As a result, their current consultation is framed without allowing for the opportunity to consider this fundamental aspect of the government’s approach. In setting out these plans, Gavin Williamson said that they put their trust in teachers, not algorithms. But this is a false dichotomy, as our proposed approach shows. In addition, as we argued last year, asking teachers to assign grades accurately and fairly is asking them to do a near impossible task – and one that will add considerably to their hugely expanded workloads: fundamentally, trusting teachers can only go so far when it comes to achieving fair and rigorous assessment.
Nevertheless, since the framing gives no alternative, in our response to the consultation, we make suggestions that will minimise the unfairness that this approach will cause. In particular, we highlight that, if teacher assessment must be used, it must take unequal learning loss into account, and it must be subject to a system of external quality assurance.
Dealing with Learning Loss
Assessment is important, not just so that students can continue to the next stage of their education, training or employment, but also to ensure that they continue to engage with schooling for the remainder of the academic year and, hence, minimise the learning loss that will be experienced. We therefore agree that students should be assessed in some manner, and that this should be through papers set by the exam boards and provided to the schools (as is proposed). Both for this reason and wider aims of fairness, it should be compulsory for these to be used by schools as the primary basis of the teacher assessed grades for both GCSEs and A levels. Flexibility in the timing of these assessments will allow this possibility despite the ongoing risks to disruption of schooling.
However, as is widely documented, pupils have had very different experiences of learning this year, so they will be at very different stages when they come to be assessed. For this reason, it is deeply unfair to award pupils grades based solely on the standard they are performing when they are assessed(which is proposed to be at some point between May-June 2021). While it is important to push the assessment date to the latest time period possible (to allow students maximum time to catch up), it is unlikely that students will be able to recover from lost learning, and it is inevitable that students will be at different levels when they are assessed through no fault of their own.
This is fundamentally different from the philosophy that DfE and Ofqual have taken according to the consultation document, which states that students should be assessed at the standard at which they are currently performing. While we agree that it is important that these grades proxy pupils’ potential for that next stage, given the important role they play in the transition to further education and employment, it cannot be fair for pupils whose education has been disrupted the most to be systematically disadvantaged by an approach that ignores this. As such, it is vital that this year’s assessment system take this unequal opportunity to learn into account.
An important aspect of that would be for the papers set by exams boards to have several flexible components. There should be flexibility in the timing, to ensure that all pupils are able to sit them in their educational setting despite the risks of further disruption. The papers themselves should also be flexible, with teachers able to account for differentially disrupted curricula by deciding which topics are covered in the questions that students are asked to answer.
Given the exam boards will be required to set these exams, the best approach would be also to use their expertise in marking them. As well as being far more rigorous, using the exam boards’ available, paid workforce to do the marking would avoid placing a huge additional burden on teachers’ workloads, as well as avoiding the risks of exposing them to unfair pressure from pupils and parents.
But in the absence of this option, we agree with Ofqual that exam boards should still play an important role in providing assessment guidance and monitoring. We agree with the proposals to involve exam boards in providing support and information to schools and colleges to help them meet the assessment requirements, and to ensure internal quality assurance. Exam boards should also be involved in external quality assurance. At the very least this should include extensive sampling, at subject level, the evidence on which the submitted grades were based. Judging by last year’s experiences, there is good reason to suggest that independent schools should be a particular focus of external quality assurance activity.
We also argue that the exam boards should be responsible for the appeals processes, rather than schools and teachers being involved in reconsidering the marks they have provided. Again, this distance between candidate and assessor is vital to ensure a rigour and fairness in the process that is not susceptible to inappropriate pressure, while also protecting individual teachers and schools from unfair criticism from parents and the media.
Finally, it is crucial that the appeals process take place before universities receive students’ grades. This is critical to avoid the deeply unfair situation of last year, with students apparently missing offers and losing their university place, only to have their grades later overturned.
Making these decisions quickly will provide much needed clarity for schools, pupils and their parents. However, the serious problem of learning loss will remain. Students transitioning to further education or into the labour market will be doing so having received less education than in a normal year. Adjusting grades to take account of this is a necessary short-term solution to avoid embedding unfairness in the transition process, but even more important is a plan to support catch up for all those who have fallen behind, which will be most acute for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. This will require significant commitment and investment. This needs to be recognised immediately to prevent further delay.