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Summer exams: Clearing the path of uncertainty to clarity and consistency

Written By: Michael Chiles
5 min read
A viewpoint on Ofqual’s proposals regarding summer examinations in 2021

This viewpoint on Ofqual’s proposals regarding summer examinations in 2021 is written by Michael Chiles, Geography Teacher, Head of Department, Principal Examiner and Chartered College Council Member.

The views presented here do not necessarily represent those of the Chartered College. Views on the best way forward are very varied across the sector. For a different viewpoint, read Shirley Clarke’s thoughts and Mick Walker’s views, and for a wider perspective on some of the challenges and our members’ views, have a look at Cat Scutt’s summary of members’ concerns for the Chartered College.

The announcement from Boris Johnson on Monday 4th January cancelling GCSE and A-level examinations for summer 2021 did not really surprise me, given the continually changing education landscape we find ourselves in as we navigate the uncertainties caused by the pandemic.

Since the first lockdown in March, school leaders and teachers have been asking for advance notice of key changes to ensure the minimal disruption for their school community. As we know, this is something that has not happened; announcements regarding setting up testing, organising remote learning provision and the sudden need to close all came too late, providing little time for leaders to plan appropriately. This has been compounded by announcements falling on Friday evenings, leading to the expectation that school leaders work during their weekends or half-term breaks to put plans in place. The approach to these announcements has not been acceptable, with little thought to the wellbeing of the people who are trying to do their best to support their teachers, students and parents.

In contrast, the announcement in the new year cancelling exams was in my opinion done too rashly and with no satisfactory alternative laid out. This has resulted in the uncertainty that we now face in the coming weeks as we await the outcomes from the consultation. For many Year 11 and 13 students, this announcement has led to heightened anxiety about their future. My own daughter, who is in Year 11, expressed her concerns when she heard the news.

“Dad, I know I can do better than what my teachers are currently predicting me.”

Along with my own students commenting:

“Sir, does this mean our mock exams we did before Christmas will now be used to determine my summer grade because I didn’t do as well as I know I could with further learning and revision?”

Many of these questions are unanswered, creating worries for both teachers in how they respond to support our younger generation, and parents who are trying to keep their child motivated. I believe that the announcement in January has resulted in a significant impact on the engagement of students towards their studies, too, as it has again derailed their education journey.

But the approach to the announcement aside, let us review what has been proposed in the consultation document. The consultation summarises the key principles that have been suggested for this summer’s exams, as follows:

  1. Students would continue with their education during this academic year
  2. Students would be assessed by their teachers in a period beginning in May into early June
  3. Teachers would submit grades to the exam boards by mid-June
  4. External quality assurance by the exam boards would be ongoing throughout June
  5. Results would be issued to students once the QA process is complete, most likely in early July
  6. Student appeals could be submitted immediately following the issue of results and would first be considered by schools and colleges.

One of the key issues with the suggested proposals is handing the responsibility of the grades over to teachers and what the quality assurance of these grades will entail. This opens the issue of unconscious bias. As uncomfortable as it may be, we know from research that teachers are often unconsciously biased against particular groups of students. According to the EEF:

“When we assess a piece of work from a child that we know well, our bias emerges. Perhaps we know they can perform better than the piece in front of us, subconsciously prompting us to raise the mark. Even if the work is assessed anonymously, the existing evidence shows that bias is exhibited against pupils with SEN, those whose behaviour is challenging, those for whom English is an additional language, and those on Free School Meals. Assessment judgments can often be overly-lenient, overly-harsh or, indeed, can reinforce stereotypes, such as boys being perceived as better than girls at mathematics.”

Another key aspect of the proposal is that exam boards would provide papers for teachers to use to form part of their assessment for the proposed grade for their students. I see this as a positive move; there are many reasons why the use of internally-set papers by schools for mock exams or summative assessments are not fit for purpose when it comes to awarding grades for students. In my book, The CRAFT of Assessment, I outlined some of the pitfalls of relying on the use of internal assessments when tracking student progress, which included creating exams that are not a true reflection of subject papers.

The use of exam board papers will provide consistency in how students are assessed nationally. Advance notice of the content in the paper should also be issued, which was one of the intentions prior to the January announcement; this will give school leaders and teachers support in helping to prepare students.

Moving forward, we want to ensure that the grades awarded to students in the summer are fair and reliable for all. If this is to be the case, we need a robust QA system where time is provided to school leaders and teachers in training them to standardise the evidence being used to determine the suggested grade for their students. In my opinion, this should be based on standardised papers so that the reliability of the QA process is not undermined. Alongside these standardised papers, school leaders and teachers would benefit from training videos on how to apply the mark scheme to support the marking process. If the emphasis is on the trust of teachers, we must empower teachers to be able to conduct a robust process, as much as possible. Given the tight timescales, this is something that will need to be considered and carefully planned once the consultation process is complete.

Beyond summer 2021, reinstating our ‘normal’ exam process is crucial to ensure a fair system for all. Despite all the reservations about the limitations of our examination process, the lack of alternative options provides greater uncertainties and will only lead to perpetuating the disadvantage gap. Our focus must be on how we can provide school leaders and teachers with the tools to close this gap and not on throwing out our current exam system.

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