Can we talk sensibly about exams please. #shortpost

We live in a world where serious newspapers print nonsense articles such as this one and this one by Simon Jenkins. “Once children were birched at school. Now they are taught maths”; “… 30 years since corporal punishment was banned in British state schools. The practice was considered “degrading and humiliating”….But ministers did not give up on discipline, replacing the cane with exams and league tables”.

For sure, we shouldn’t take attention-seeking columnists too seriously but this kind of garbage actually has influence despite the lack of analysis or apparent understanding of how assessment works. In general, I think there is just way too much polemical black-and-whitery going around in relation to exams. It would be great if we could have a sensible, measured discussion about them.

Questions we might ask include:

  • Do we want graded qualifications with nationally recognised value? How many do we need? In which subjects? In which combinations of subjects? At what stage in students’ education?
  • How concerned are we about grade inflation? Does it matter -yes, but how much? (Can we move beyond the rather lazy protest language about grade boundaries shifting – given that this is an inherent feature of any national system that seeks to maintain equivalent standards from one year to the next).
  • If we need to have fair, valid, trusted outcomes across the system between schools and regions, which subjects are best assessed by exams? What would be the most appropriate and proportionate nature and content of these exams.?
  • Are there more things we value in the curriculum that students are entitled to engage with but that don’t need a qualification at all? Does everything need a GCSE to matter?
  • Are there more areas of the curriculum we could reasonably assess without exams but via other methods such as moderated teacher assessment and portofolios? How do we manage teacher workload here? What’s our tolerance for inconsistency between schools for these processes? (Can we remove the irritating rhetoric about trusting teachers – as if it’s a lack of trust that makes teacher assessment problematic rather than the inherent technical difficulty in developing a consistently understood and maintained notion of standards in often very subjective disciplines across thousands of teachers nationwide.)
  • Is there scope for new alternatives to exams such as formal comparative judgement cycles and online adaptive testing – for some subjects?
  • Could we rescue grades 1-3 from the ‘failure’ dustbin and give them some credibility as pass grades, removing the locked-in failure inherent in out current system.
  • Longer-term could we consider moving to a full national baccalaureate system, drawing on the best systems worldwide, reducing the accountability weight on exams like GCSEs at 16, focusing more on a holistic framework with examined elements such as A levels and T levels at 18, not scrapping/axing/abolishing GCSEs immediately but dialling down the pressure on them and then maybe phasing them out over time, as the Bacc gains status?

Finally – be honest. Has the Covid exam-cancellation, CAGs-algorithm fiasco really changed your mind about your beliefs around exams? It seems to me that everyone claiming that the situation proves their position, already had that position. I know I did – take a look at this post here: Let’s not kid ourselves. Covid will fade back; it’ll go or we’ll learn to live with it. What then? Exam reform is a long-term game so let’s base our decision-making on a position of calm normality, not one formed during desperate days of chaos.

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