For years, successive governments have been obsessed with exam results.
But increasingly, this seems more in lieu of any better ideas than out of a genuine ideological attachment to standardised testing. The problem is reform has felt like such a mammoth task nobody has wanted to touch it. Enter 2020. Schools and colleges around the country were forced to close. Exams were abandoned. We reinvented how GCSEs and A-levels were graded. Was it hard? Most certainly. Did the world fall apart? No. This is because we’ve done what we Brits do best in crisis situations – adapted and found new approaches. In the process, we learned that we can get by without exams after all.
Fast forward to 2021. We are once again locked down, and the government has just announced that exams will again be cancelled. This poses an important question: if we can get through two years without exams, why insist on high-stakes testing at all?
The system is flawed. It is designed to test nothing more than memory recall. It rations the number of pupils who pass with the highest grades, ensuring that a third are doomed to failure. We may be the only system in the world that takes this approach. Even high academic achievers only leave school with a partial record of their strengths. Exams don’t credit thoughtful team players, creative problem-solvers or excellent communicators, even though these are skills that help young people thrive in life and work. Young people want them. Employers demand them. So why don’t we measure them?
Last year, in recognition of this urgent need for reform, an alliance of headteachers, universities, businesses, employers and other industry figures came together to form Rethinking Assessment. This new coalition’s aim is to make the case for reforming assessment in England and to offer workable solutions that we can trial as alternatives.
As one of Rethinking Assessment’s founding partners, the Edge Foundation recently commissioned a YouGov poll of 1,000 teachers on this very issue. It found overwhelming support for reform. 92% of teachers agreed that the assessment system needs to recognise the full range of a young person’s strengths and skills, through more than just written exams. 96% felt that schools should be judged on the quality and range of the education they offer, beyond exam results. And a massive 97% believed that a rich and broad curriculum should underpin the design of any future assessment.
While the announcement that exams are to be cancelled for a second year running is in the best interests of public health, it is also an opportunity to finally accept that our obsession with league tables is insufficient for the needs of a modern educational system. We need new ways to define and measure young people’s knowledge and skills.
This will require careful collaboration between teachers, schools, government and employers. (81% of teachers in Edge’s poll felt that employers and universities need involvement in shaping future assessment.) So what might a reformed system look like? Rethinking Assessment will be working on this during 2021, but we can find tantalising hints by looking at other approaches around the world.
One example is the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). Brainchild of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, PISA is a global assessment system that tests 15-year-olds in around 80 countries. While PISA is well known for its tests of Literacy, Numeracy and science, it has also developed tests which take into account key employability measures like creative and collaborative problem-solving, global competence and creative thinking. And instead of testing knowledge recall, students are evaluated on their cognition, for instance by interpreting texts, explaining scientific concepts and exploring authentic scenarios. PISA’s larger aim is not only to test young people but also to evaluate different educational systems in the context of uncertain times.
We can find an even bolder approach from the Mastery Transcript Consortium, a coalition of schools in the US. The consortium uses digital high school transcripts, a form of certified school records. These capture students’ holistic learning experiences, unique strengths, abilities, interests and personal histories on a specially-designed software platform. The platform tracks everything from academic outcomes to leadership skills. Since credits are defined and certified by individual schools, the system is far from ‘one-size-fits-all’. What’s more, transcripts are recognised by university admissions, much like UCAS here in the UK.
While large-scale change is a future goal for England, the foundations have already been laid.
The Skills Builder Partnership is a consortium of education and employer organisations that has defined essential skills for young people, alongside progression frameworks for achieving them. More than 500 schools have already adopted this framework to evaluate and certify their pupils. Crucially, any school can do this – no green light from the government is required.
Any new system will likely incorporate a combination of different assessment types. But after years of stagnation and the upheaval of the pandemic, an injection of new thinking is just what we need. Nobody will deny the challenges ahead – if reforming assessment was an easy task, it would have already happened. But if in under a year, we can build half a dozen hospitals, develop several new vaccines and transform face-to-face teaching into online learning overnight, then our assessment system is certainly not untouchable. 2020 was a terrible year. But if it has put us back in touch with our ability to innovate and effect positive change, then perhaps it wasn’t quite such an annus horribilis after all.
Find out more about Rethinking Assessment and join The Edge Foundation for an online webinar featuring Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee, and key members of Rethinking Assessment on 27 January by booking online.