The media coverage leading up to this year’s A level and GCSE results has taken a different tone from what most would expect.
The focus has not been on students’ achievements, nor has it shone a light on the hard work of teachers. Instead, it has centred on the speculation of ‘inflated’ results and called for accountability of teacher assessed grades. Shifting blame from teachers to Ofqual and even to students skirts around the actual issues. It is unhelpful when looking at the ‘bigger picture’ and the key legacy issues beyond grades, attainment and university places.
In this post, we’ll take a look at these poignant issues — which the bouncing ball of media blame has largely out shadowed — question the government plans (or lack of) for next year and what can be done to make our education system fairer for all.
Gender Gap & Equality
The gender gap has reached its highest level in 10 years, with the rate of A* and As standing at 46.4% for girls versus 41.7% for boys (A Levels) — a reversed trend from previous years where boys outperformed girls in exams.
Jill Duffy, the Chief Executive of the OCR exam board, said, “We know the pandemic has had wider impacts not just on education but also on mental health, and recent reports have suggested that it has hit young men more than females.”
With mental health becoming a critical factor in student success, brought on both by loss of social life, the reality of uncertain career prospects and the challenge of university courses — next year is going to be a tough one for teachers and students to navigate without top-level planning and support.
The gender gap and mental wellness aren’t the only gaps to have gained mass post pandemic and exam results day. The gap between private and state school A-level grades has also grown to its widest in the modern era. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds were worse off by at least a tenth of a grade compared to those from more affluent backgrounds.
It’s now become clear that the government’s last-minute recovery plan has highlighted and extenuated long-standing equality issues within our education system and shown that the playing field is by no means ‘level’.
What is more worrying is that without any physical or verbal plan from the government to reverse in-equality, it is only likely to get worse in coming years especially for those sitting exams next year as there is no clear outline for any funding and or ‘push’ to help recover lost learning.
Reliance on Exams
The key issues highlighted above are deeply concerning as the government is yet to outline an adapted plan other than returning to exams next year. The government is keeping its cards relatively close to its chest and is still preaching that exams are the fairest way to determine grades, and that’s what they ‘intend’ to go with next year.
Simon Lebus, the interim Chief Regulator of Ofqual, said “We expect to get back to exams and formal assessments next year because although exams are not perfect, they have proven to consistently be the best way of assessing what a student knows, understands and can do.”
We seem to be at a crossroads of statistics and policy which hasn’t taken student, teacher or even public voice into consideration.
With students this year achieving considerably better grades than their predecessors and the intended fall-back to those exams for this year’s pupils. Surely those sitting exams in 2022 will fall short in comparative achievement, making it harder for them to compete for university, apprenticeship places or in the jobs market.
There is still hope that the government and regulatory bodies will develop a plan to counteract the widening disparities mentioned above — especially as one in four exam grades are thought to be wrong. But what could they do, and what form could a fairer assessment process take?
There is a common thought amongst educators that exams are a simplistic and ‘easy’ way to assess students. Only giving a partial picture of ability and application and in doing so is not preparing our students for life beyond the classroom.
Instead of a return to exams, our educators and students deserve a contingency plan based on evidenced learning data that moves away from the reliability of subjective grading for the validity of a robust and fair continuous assessment system.
Continuous assessment 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. Appropriate use of continuous assessment can improve long-term educational outcomes for all stakeholders, which is of greater importance to both students and employers than an exam result certificate.
An assessment of a student’s specific learning needs, harmonised with targeted resources to address those needs, is more significant than the grade afforded by an exam.
Now, effecting change from a one-dimensional exam-based assessment system to a more nuanced approach with continuous assessment will not be without challenges and teething pains.
It’s a big reform, yet, other countries and governments have seen its evidenced potential and are taking action by implementing strong and focussed policy. Indias NEP 2020 (New Education Policy) for example, has stated the importance of improving student wellbeing and equality in their 1.2 million schools. The NEP has stated that a skills-based curriculum, with robust continuous assessment, is the foundation from which to achieve their policy goals and equip their students with the necessary skills to progress in the 21st century.
Revolutionary change is possible at scale. As continuous assessment gains evidenced traction globally, we hope to see it included in more and more educational policies. Thereby improving the long-term educational outcomes of children across the globe offering them a much brighter future.
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