The UK’s cancellation of A level and GCSE exams in 2021 is a regrettable consequence of the pandemic. On the one hand, employers hiring school leavers and universities admitting students will be less sure of what they are getting. On the other, millions of students will be facing the future having only substitute teacher-assessed accreditations – which are inevitably subject to issues of consistency and bias – when they are already suffering from disrupted teaching and learning loss. While high-stakes testing has often been criticised for the student anxiety it can create, the unavailability of external exams will only compound widespread mental health issues for the UK class of 2021 brought on both by loss of social life, the reality of uncertain career prospects and the challenge of university courses they may now lack basic foundations to undertake.
The reality, however, is that for most employers and university tutors, exam results have always been an insufficient condition of a job offer or admission. This year, in their complete absence in some countries, there will simply have to be increased reliance on interviews, teacher assessments, and past records of achievement. As educational technology becomes more pervasive, the opportunity for students in the future to have a complete record of their schoolwork in the cloud – the topics they have covered and records of day-to-day tests demonstrating their understanding – has already been imagined by some observers as to render baccalaureate exams permanently unnecessary. The key will be whether it proves possible to develop standards for presentation of longitudinal data which can be accepted by employers and universities as readily as exam grades, no simple task.
Continuous assessment: Measurement that matters
The feasibility of EdTech continuous assessment platforms like Maths-Whizz to replace, for example, SATs tests in primary schools can already be demonstrated. The Maths Ages of Year 6 students determined over time by continuous assessment are no less valid than SAT scores and benefit from not being a result of teaching to the test. The purpose of the SATs has never been to provide individual student accreditations. Evidence also suggests parents have little interest in SATs scores as a basis for measuring, let alone choosing a school for their children. More generally, continuous assessment at both primary and secondary level affords the opportunity to use regular formative testing to improve teaching and learning for the benefit of the student and to remove the bias towards narrow teaching and cramming aimed at conventional high-stakes summative tests. Its use could thereby improve long-term educational outcomes for all stakeholders, which is ultimately of greater importance to both students and employers than the certificate of an exam result.
The disruption to this year’s exams is a distraction to the real issues facing the senior year students at secondary schools in pandemic affected countries. All of these students are likely to need a boost to their social esteem and self-confidence. More directly, those going to university or vocational education may need sandwich courses before they start their tertiary qualifications. Those contemplating the world of work should be considered for additional catchup summer courses to support their entry into apprenticeships and/or other employer supported education. An assessment of their specific learning needs, followed by targeted resources to address those needs, is more significant than the grade afforded by an exam.
Real skills, embedded learning and societal respect will always trump exam grades. When we work out how to ‘compile’ student continuous assessment convincingly, future cohorts of students, not to mention educators and employers, will be thankful to have shed their dependency on high-stakes exams.