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Discussion: The Future of Examinations

By Alastair Montgomery

An excellent article recently appeared in the TES discussing what the future of post-16 examinations might look like. There is a growing trend in secondary education that GCSEs - and their current format, are no longer fit for purpose; that they are not actually very good at measuring attainment or progress, and that they don’t provide young people with a useful indicator of their future potential. One think tank has reported that “summative, closed-book exams at the end of five years of secondary learning are, on their own, a very poor way of measuring talent”. And reformers are using the disruption caused by covid-19 as an opportunity to renew calls to end these exams.

The author of the article, Daisy Christodoulou is director of education at No More Marking, an organisation that uses innovative technologies to improve the ways of measuring performance and assessing written responses. The largest question the article raises is ‘if not examinations, how else should we assess students at the end of their schooling?’ This question raises all sorts of difficult questions around methodologies, grey-areas and fairness - pointing out that during the disruption caused by covid-19, the most advantaged pupils came out on top. This has led to to questions over whether independent schools managed to inflate their students’ grades (see this report), and how schools working with the most disadvantaged pupils could raise expectations and demonstrate a wider range of abilities and skills.

“summative, closed-book exams at the end of five years of secondary learning are, on their own, a very poor way of measuring talent”

The problems are much deeper than those caused by systematic failures. Some questions are specific to the measurements themselves. Are ‘grades’ even the best way to describe attainment? For example, there are ways in which scaled scores can provide much more useful descriptors of ability, with values up to 1,500 for example - allowing expectations to be set by employers and universities that fall into ranges of ability rather than more arbitrary values of 1-10. The idea of using wider-ranged scoring leads to the hope that a more holistic and nuanced student profile is the result - allowing for more differentiation and other skills, and experience, to gain prominence.

Could on-screen adaptive assessments be the future?

Like APT, using comparative, standardised scoring methods could be key indicators of performance. However these assessments work best as low-stakes evaluations and can become distorted when used as high-stakes exams that may have a university place or job offer riding on them. These assessments also have margins of error, and nuances that require careful interpretation - which can cause issues if they are going to be placed in the hands of non-expert stakeholders, including the candidates themselves, parents, and future employers. This is why at APT we always insist our assessments are handled by suitably qualified and trained consultants, to prevent misinterpretation and to maintain the integrity and credibility of the data. This stipulation keeps our assessment small in volume, but helps ensure its continued value to families, consultants and schools.

Artificial Intelligence

Finally, the report talks about the future of assessment using AI to address consistencies in traditional subjective marking. AI is increasingly finding its way into the education sphere - with students using freely available systems to write their essays, and universities using anti-AI detectors in the marking of student work. However some of these technologies could have a huge impact on assessment - using highly sophisticated models to identify candidates’ strengths and weaknesses. Like adaptive assessments but on a much larger, multi-faceted (looking at quantitative and qualitative traits) and nuanced scale.

So what does the future bring? The article quite rightly suggests that reform is needed in the long term, but in the meantime there are practical and ‘incremental improvements’ that will help make ongoing improvements in future years, and perhaps soften the major changes that reformers are so keen to sweep in. At APT we are supportive of assessment that puts the individual learner at the heart of any evaluation - that focuses the conversation on the candidate’s next steps, whilst supporting their needs. If this can be the future of post-16 exams, then surely that is an appropriate goal.

Alastair Montgomery is the Managing Director of APT and Director of Spotlight Education - a support service for families seeking support for their child's academic pathway and potential.


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