Far from the worst thing the DfE could do, changing its mind and reinstating exams would be the best for all concerned, writes Stuart Lock
“Why are they cancelling exams, Sir?”
I don’t know. I can’t even think of a plausible reason for the decision several months before it was necessary to make it. And now that the decision is made, we are cast right back to last spring and summer, like some exam-related Groundhog Day.
What do we do instead?
By now, all the arguments against what Williamson has proposed are well rehearsed. We know that teacher- or centre-assessed grades are subject to human bias, impossible to moderate and require huge amounts of work while heaping pressure onto teachers. We know parents with the sharpest elbows will pressurise teachers and schools – and they will largely not be those from the most disadvantaged backgrounds. We know that around the world, in high-stakes assessments which rely on teacher assessment, there are serious problems with grade inflation.
We know that teacher assessment is also demonstrably biased against the most disadvantaged pupils. We also know this fact in no way impugns their professionalism.
We know that internal assessments compromise the validity of assessments because of a human tendency to teach to the test. And we know that even if we could get over that there is no good way to standardise assessments between schools, let alone grade them.
The current febrile environment amplifies anti-exam voices
The fairest form of assessment is the most valid and reliable – the most accurate – form of assessment. We can either award grades on the basis of exams that uncover what pupils know and can do, or on the basis of speculation about what they don’t and can’t. I can think of no circumstances, even a global pandemic, where the latter is more desirable.
While many DfE decisions in the past ten months have come very late, this one has come too soon and too rashly. More typically, it has come without a satisfactory plan B. Partly, that’s because there isn’t a possible satisfactory plan B. There is simply no better solution than just sitting examinations.
But this is a Department for Education that has made a habit of changing their minds. Doing it again on this might be politically unpalatable, but it wouldn’t even be in the top 10 unpalatable things that have happened this week. In my view, this is one decision they should rescind.
Many of the loudest arguments against examinations are not being made as a result of the current challenges of the pandemic. They are well-rehearsed arguments by campaigns to try and remove them altogether from our education system, rooted in an ideology that believes there must be a better way, but which hasn’t yet deigned to spell it out.
These voices are capitalising on well-intended concerns about fairness to try to achieve their goal. The current febrile environment amplifies their voice. But sober consideration of events and the needs of society and individuals shows that these voices fail to solve the problem they identify. Indeed, they only exacerbate it.
In considering this option, the government should ask itself honestly whether they have the stomach not to, because reinstating examinations next summer is going to take a lot of it. Twelve months from now, the anti-exam voice will only be louder, and the consequences even more severe for young people if it is successful.
Of course, examinations aren’t perfect. They don’t measure everything; some pupils can find them stressful; some find it difficult to show their knowledge in high-stakes conditions; sometimes the questions can be weighted more to certain areas of a course. However, there is simply no better way of assessing students. In examinations, tasks are common, marking is monitored and awards are standardised.
And yes, some pupils have had unfair access to education during the pandemic and this will undoubtedly have exacerbated unfairness that is already present in the system – through private schooling, tutoring, advantaged home-life, going to better schools or simply having better teachers. But we can’t make that unfairness fairer by manipulating the assessment system. All that does is cover up and perpetuate it.
Exams can’t fully mitigate against disadvantage, but they do show it and allow us to do something about it.
So, let’s focus our efforts on that.