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Introduction

Although major economic, educational, and societal setbacks have taken place as a result of coronavirus, it has created the conditions by which we have a rare opportunity to examine the current assessment regime in the UK.

Students would have ordinarily taken their GCSE and A-Level exams across June and July, and received their results in August. These results typically determine whether they receive places in their chosen sixth form colleges or universities.

The emergence of Covid-19 has thrown the status quo out of the window; it is practically impossible for students to ‘socially distance’. Ofqual has recently published guidance on how these qualifications are to be awarded; however, they are unable to compel exam boards to issue examinations. 

Incentives in the Assessment System

Education systems have a unique economy. They have actors with many different incentives. It is important to look at the incentives to understand the system.

Examination Boards

Examination boards such as Edexcel, AQA, and OCR, have significant financial incentives. Edexcel, the largest exam board, used to be a charitable organisation. Now, it is a highly-profitable business. Furthermore, examination boards such as AQA and OCR have charitable status, granting them significant tax advantages. See annual financial reports of the three major exam boards here: AQA, OCR, and Edexcel.

A system of private examination boards has both negative and positive effects:

Positive effects:

  • Examination boards compete on accuracy as they cannot afford to diminish their reputation.
  • Examination boards are on their guidance so that examiners can award marks fairly. 
  • Schools can select exams that may suit their set of students.
  • Examination boards have to be as consistent in their guidance. 
  • Examination boards need to produce excellent resources that can appeal to teachers and students. 

Negative effects:

  • Examination boards have an incentive to generate a high number of passes as schools are their main clients, and schools want to improve their results. 
  • Schools can select boards tactically to increase their pass rate (in theory). 
  • Examination boards are unequal when in terms of resources and expertise, so the system may become more monopolised. 
  • As there are commercial incentives for the exam boards, they produce resources with profit in mind. This leads to the quality of support across subjects varying according to their commercial viability. 
  • Examination boards have an incentive to be formulaic across their papers. This helps them attract customers and helps them produce resources more efficiently. 

Politicians and the Media

Politicians usually end up criticising the rigour of the previous education system or talking about grade inflation (the trend describing how grades go up over time). When changes are brought in that they agree upon, they sometimes use statistics to back up their opinions. Often these statistics are applied in baffling ways. In this regard, I am tempted to agree with Dominic Cummings’s statement that the education debate itself lacks ‘rigour’.

The problem with turning education into a political contest is that the students are forced to adapt to whichever prevailing ideology takes root. Politicians use examinations as the main instrument of change. The casualties are the first and second set of students that encounter the reforms, as there is usually a lack of guidance, past papers, and other resources.

The issue with using examinations and assessments as both the instrument and evidence of change is they represent only a microcosm of education. This is one of the reasons why there has been so much panic throughout this Covid-19 pandemic over how grades are assigned at GCSE and A-Level; we are dependent on exams to inform us about the level of a student’s competence.

Examinations: the good and the bad

In order to understand some of the objections to the measures brought in by Ofqual in Lockdown, it is important to consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of examinations. Here are a few:

Strengths

  • If administered fairly without leaks or cheating taking place, exams allow students to shine.
  • Examinations provide data about the levels of students. 
  • They allow students enough time to prepare optimally.
  • There are often foundation papers available for those who struggle with subjects. 
  • There are mitigation processes in place for those who have had issues during the examination process.
  • They provide tangible evidence of subject-knowledge for employers and further education establishments.
  • Students feel motivated to work towards a goal. A high grade, in some cases, acts as a strong motivator. 
  • Papers are double-marked to catch mistakes made by examiners.

Weaknesses

  • Access to additional educational resources such as books, exam papers, tutors, etc. increases the chances of exam success. This means that wealthier students have a competitive advantage. 
  • Some students with anxiety or stress may struggle to perform under exam conditions, even if they have strong subject knowledge.
  • Different exam formats seem to suit different students. This may hinder or benefit students depending on the situation. 
  • Some subjects (especially the sciences) offer quite a diverse selection of exams, which means that the students will differ in some areas of their subject-knowledge. 
  • The examiners who remark papers are also imperfect. 

Assigning Grades During Pandemic

Ofqual has awarded most of the responsibility in assigning GCSE and A-Level grades to teachers. Teachers have to consider their students’ past performances in order to reach a decision on their final grades. Teachers have to predict what students would have achieved had they taken the exam.

Teachers have to base their grades on previous evidence, including classwork, homework, previous test scores and mocks. Predicted grades are also used. Of course, teachers have a strong incentive to award all their students with top grades, but this is where moderation will play a key role. Teachers also need to rank their class students. This means that even if a teacher assigns his or her entire class the top grade ‘9’ at GCSE or A* at A-Level, they would be unlikely to all receive that grade as class ranking, would also impact the final grade.

The grades will also be standardised across subjects. This means that the scores of candidates will be recalculated to reflect their deviations (divergence) from the mean score (more technical information here), plotted on a distribution curve, and then students will have their grades returned to them. See the maths GCSE grade distribution on the right. You should be able to tell that if the results form a curve with many candidates achieving grades 5s and 6s, and far fewer candidates at the tails of the distributions: 9s and 1s. 

Taken from School’s Week

Probably the main problem with teachers supplying the grades is implicit bias. Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our decision-making. Even if teachers believe that they hold no biases against or in favour of students, they likely have a degree of prejudice.

During my undergraduate degree, I remember reading about how implicit biases affect our everyday decision-making. There is a really fantastic set of Implicit Bias Tests that have been developed so that you can check your own prejudices:

Take the Implicit Association Test to see what implicit biases you hold.

These implicit biases will likely have some impact on the grades of the final candidates. This is also another reason why exams are generally preferable to predicted grades. The effect of an examiner’s implicit biases is somewhat reduced if the examiner does not know the candidate’s name (they only know the candidate number), and other details.

If you want to find out more about your unconscious mind I strongly recommend the book, Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson (below) – it is packed with information and psychological case studies.

Another issue with the lack of official testing is that many students have lost their focus as they do not have an exam to work towards. My colleagues and I have noticed that students that were working towards exams have relaxed considerably since the exams have been cancelled. This has been my main concern. Students who tend to have a lot more educational issues have started falling even more behind the students who are already strong academically. At GCSE level, I have observed that it is the students entered for the foundation papers who have lost their focus first.

Conclusion

Creating an education system with a ‘rigorous’ assessment regime is no easy challenge. It would probably involve taking exams, alongside other forms of assessment. Speaking personally, I would only have one dedicated exam board which still offers foundation papers and higher. Continual assessment throughout the year via exams, coursework, and weekly work could make the system stronger, and help students improve their understanding of subjects. Tasks that encourage enterprise, creative projects and gaining more technical skills through project-based work, could also be added to make education more engaging and applicable to the workplace.

For the students themselves, I would like to say this: If you do not receive the grades you expected, do not blame yourself unduly. These are exceptional events for exceptional times, and there is always a path to success. Use this time to gain skills and knowledge, and focus on discovering the routes that can bring you success in the future. Read often, take a keen interest in the world around you, and engage yourself in significant social relationships.

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