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Calling time on the ‘gold standard’? The future of assessment in England

The Westminster Education Forum in February 2022 brought together nearly twenty experts from the world of education to discuss the future of assessment in England. Claire Gilbert reports back on the key talking points.

Evolution, not revolution

The WEF focused on the topics of high-stakes assessment, how we support all students to achieve, and the role of technology in delivering change. 

Young people must be at the heart of the developments.

A broad consensus emerged that a change is needed in the way young people in England are summatively assessed and that this change should be characterised by ‘evolution, not revolution’. Stakeholders must be consulted throughout iterations, and young people must be at the heart of the developments. The panellists acknowledged the huge impact of the pandemic restrictions of last two years on teachers and students, and that this pressure and ensuing fragility is ongoing, with real and lasting consequences for mental health and wellbeing. 

Fuelling change 

The changes to learning unleashed by the pandemic have put assessment under the microscope. Change is already happening, with a gradual deployment of IT-based assessments, and reworking of specifications to reflect today’s society. 

Jill Duffy, CEO of OCR, told how this exam board is working with Literacy in Colour to make qualifications more inclusive, and bring climate change, natural history and sustainability into the specifications. Of course, technology can have a great impact on sustainability, reducing the carbon footprint of assessment through a reduction in paper and travel.

What are assessments actually for?

The current assessment system was developed to identify whether students could attend university; now the results perform multiple tasks including informing employers on hire-ability and, crucially, informing young people themselves on where their strengths lie and where they can develop. 

High-stakes examinations during a period of instability are damaging to mental health.

David Gallagher, NCFE*

Several panellists believed that our current assessment system is irreparably broken and needs an overhaul. David Gallagher of the NCFE notes that high-stakes examinations during a period of instability are damaging to mental health. 

Is England’s assessment system an outlier?

Robin Bevan, headteacher at Southend School for Boys and former president of the National Education Union (NEU), characterises England’s assessment system as an outlier for three reasons. Firstly, almost all assessment is terminal. Secondly, the quantity of time spent in examinations is so high, with 50 hours in a three-week window standard. Thirdly, the system requires assessments that are content-heavy and academic by design. 

There is a massive emphasis on recalling facts and working alone, rather than the collaborative skills that employers say they want.

This system leads to a ‘forgotten third’ who don’t have access to appropriate examinations, which is both shocking and immoral. Rethinking Assessment’s Alistair McConville agrees that high-stakes assessment has a ‘disastrous’ impact on the bottom third. And it can ‘brutalise’ the highest attainers, with a massive emphasis on recalling facts and working alone, rather than the collaborative skills that employers say they want. Louise Hayward from the University of Glasgow agrees that higher attainers can become ‘high-stakes dependent’.

Rethinking assessment 

There are alternatives to this form of terminal assessment. Rethinking Assessment is working on curated pupil profiles which include project work, portfolio and teacher assessment. Both Louise Hayward and Jill Duffy spoke about the space that could be made for other forms of assessment, with Louise pointing out that no university exclusively uses high-stakes assessments, deploying them alongside other methods such as oral work, group work, creative responses or extended written pieces. 

Big reforms in high-stakes assessment have a huge impact on teachers and students.

Heather Darcy, a head of sixth form, believes in investing in formative assessment and leaving high-stakes assessments alone. She made the point that there were big reforms in GCSEs only a short time ago, and change here has a huge impact on teachers and students. Heather argues that it isn’t exams that cause mental health issues for young people, and being resilient when under pressure is an important life skill. 

Jill Duffy referred to Cambridge University Press research that finds our assessments are still widely recognised to have excellent depth of content with rigorous assessment. Removing GCSEs would be extremely expensive, time-consuming and disruptive. And in a summer 2021 TES survey, 59% of teachers didn’t want GCSEs abolished.

Addressing inequality of access

Examinations are increasing in their flexibility.

Arguments were presented for displaying caution when changing the system. Dr Philip Wright of the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) focused on the need to preserve the mental wellbeing of students. He outlined that examinations are increasing in their flexibility. The former chief regulator of Ofqual Isobel Nisbet pointed out the increasing use of access arrangements to give some students extra time in their GCSE examinations. 

Technology has already dramatically changed the assessment landscape, but the problem of inequality of access has not been resolved. As David Gallagher pointed out, it is not just a tech access issue but also an issue with access to the optimum conditions to work with tech. Philip Wright believes that rapid change will not solve these challenges. 

For examinations that are so high profile and central to student experience, learners must be fully included in the path to changes. 

Young people at the heart of change

In summary, the rapid changes in learning experienced during the pandemic, coupled with the growing capabilities of technology, suggests that there is a need and appetite for change, and a consensus that young people should be at the heart of it. As Ian Castledine from RM explained, the model of technological change in New Zealand was carefully planned and incremental. For examinations that are so high profile and central to the student experience, learners must be fully included in the path to changes. 

*Direct quotes or paraphrased references cited in this article are from our own notes taken during the event. Please note that speakers have not had the opportunity for any corrections.