Thoughts about exams and system critiques.

Here’s a post to capture a twitter thread I posted this week. Copied without edits.

Thoughts about exams and system critiques. Too many critiques of our exam system – however well-intentioned – misfire through either a lack of understanding of how exams and assessment work and/or a failure to suggest a better alternative.

The grade boundary conspiracy: Yes, of course grade boundaries shift. This is an inherent and necessary element in comparing standards year to year. It’s entirely technical, statistical and helps maintain a sense of standards without artificial grade inflation.

The ‘bell curve’ conspiracy: It’s inherent to the nature of assessing a large cohort. The issue is not that there is a bell-curve (there will be); it’s that we arbitrarily decide certain positions are ‘Fail’. That’s the problem – so try to focus on the right issue…

It’s uncontroversial that students will achieve different levels. 20% will always be in the bottom 20%. The solution is not to cast them aside. If you come last in a race, you didn’t fail, it’s just that everyone else ran faster. If you get Grade 1 Piano, you didn’t fail Grade 8

‘Criterion referenced’ delusion: it’s not a meaningful idea. You can’t assess most curriculum areas this way in any practical sense at any scale e.g. evaluating if John ‘knows how photosynthesis works’ or ‘can evaluate sources’ or ‘can solve linear equations’. It’s gibberish.

You can’t mitigate disadvantage by gerrymandering the exam system. Exams are not more unfair for less privileged students any more than education in general is less fair (tutors, home help, wifi etc). No assessment regime will rebalance’s cart before horse

Teacher Assessment has a place but is no panacea. It’s not about ‘trust’. Trust is technical in assessment terms – different people reach different judgements and moderation is needed. That’s time consuming and expensive. Workload issues have to be considered… Unions take note

Bias is real. Evidence is not on the side of teacher assessment. Exams are more likely to remove bias for ethnicity, social class. Teachers are human with inherent bias. Don’t claim teacher assessment as a saviour for underachieving groups; it can make things worse.

There is too much ‘blackandwhitery’. Exams ruin lives! The answers lie in thinking about rebalancing, not scrapping. Let’s talk about the most appropriate, proportionate combination of assessment modes relevant to each curriculum area. Do we really need 3x Maths GCSE papers? No.

Let’s look at whether other specific models could be adopted e.g. where elements of the curriculum do not get examined formally – why does everything need a GCSE? Could we have more portfolio assessment in some areas? More projects? Let’s explore these subtle questions in detail.

If we’re going to really reform our system, there are bigger fish to fry – eg rebalancing the weight of assessment to focus on 18, not 16; giving more value to personal development; bridging the Tech/Academic divide; allowing more students to experience success instead of failure

Next week will see a Big Announcement from @NatBaccTrust about recommendations for a National Baccalaureate for England, tackling issues in a measured, holistic manner with..drum roll.. actual practical suggestions for how it could work. Putting our money where our mouth is.

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