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Avoiding Examination Chaos this Summer

Many think this summer’s examination replacement consultation is a bit of a dog’s dinner.  The Department for Education/OFQUAL consultation seems more interested in re-establishing an examination system that’s not an examination system, then looking at ways to create a meaningful alternative in these pandemic times.  Some have already expressed the fear that this summer will be as chaotic as last year.

I will feed the results from the questions at the bottom of the page into the Headteachers Roundtable response.  I’m grateful to a number of friends, colleagues and contacts who have supported the ideas developed below.

The basic premise of the consultation seems to be to produce model exam papers which different teachers/schools may choose from/omit questions; with papers sat on different days and in different non-examination conditions.  It is about as daft as it comes.  It will confuse the public who, understandably, have a certain mental construct of what an examination is; all students sit the same set of questions, at the same time and in the same examination conditions. 

Further, the whole section about whether non-examination evidence should be used is unnecessary.  Trust teachers and schools to determine an appropriate system and implement it well.  The Department & OFQUAL should have consulted on the much bigger issues that need to be determined at a national level.

As a profession we need to help improve the situation.  Within that spirit, I would be really interested and grateful if you would spend some time considering and responding to the questions below.

Examinations are used to differentiate students by rank ordering their marks and grouping those with similar results together (a proxy for their knowledge of the subject/syllabus).  These students would then be awarded an identical grade.  This would be differentiated from other groups of students who had either more or less knowledge. These examination grades form the basic passports that enable young people to move to further & higher education and employment. 

The issue that remains unasked is what the grades this summer actually represent; what inferences might we want or be able to draw from them?  In normal times there is a reasonable expectation that we would be able to draw conclusions about the quantum of knowledge a young person has about the subject syllabus. 

The expectation is that students had studied the whole subject syllabus to a certain depth.  This year, we simply don’t know whether this is true. Some are correlating lost teaching time with either more limited coverage of the syllabus or less depth of understanding. 

External Quality Assurance Processes

In seeking to quality assure teacher assessments, the consultation proposes that after the awarding of teacher assessed grades the examination boards should undertake a quality assurance process.  This has the benefit of putting no limits on teachers’ initial awarding of grades, beyond that the school/teacher places on themselves.  What the process will be is not covered within the consultation.  As ever the devil will be in the detail but it is difficult to see how this post-awarding of grades standardisation will ensure comparability in the grades awarded by different schools.

In DfE/OFQUAL’s Exam Replacement Problem, I proposed that in advance of teachers grading students each school was given the number of grades (grade profile) that could be awarded in total in each subject.  The grade range would be based on two separate calculations. 

Calculation 1 – A straight forward calculation per subject based on the prior attainment of the current Year 11 group, using their Key Stage 2 results. 

Calculation 2 – A statistical calculation using a three year subject based progress score from years 2017-2019. 

The two calculations would produce a grade range for each subject and would be open to appeal if a school had objective evidence to challenge it.  Crucially, the range would be provided in advance of teachers awarding grades to individual students.  As long as grades awarded were within the range no further quality assurance, moderation or standardisation process would be required as we “trust teachers”.  This obviously limits the grades that a school/ teacher may award but has the benefit of a degree of comparability between the grades awarded to students in different schools.

A final proposal is similar to above but calculates the number of each grade that might be awarded at a school rather than a subject level.  This has a number of statistical benefits.  As the sample size is scaled up the bumps or variations from one year to the next tend to get smoothed out.  In most schools each year, some subjects improve their results and some go down but rates of achievement in all subjects combined are fairly stable at grades 9-7 and grades 9-4.

During a “normal” year, there will be 20-25% of schools who achieve results much better or worse than their recent history. Schools with poor historic results will tend to improve and those with high results will tend to deteriorate. The grade range based upon two different calculations seeks to take this into account, to an extent.

This school level proposal again limits the grades that a school/ teacher may award; allows a degree of comparability between the grades awarded to students in different schools but would require more work for a school to convert their overall grade allowance to grade allowances for individual subjects. Remember we are not necessarily looking for a good system (they all seem pretty poor) rather one that does the least harm/ is better than the alternatives.

What Should Appear on Students’ Certificates?

In the previous blog cited above, I suggested that teachers would award a grade range (either 8-9; 6-7; 4-5 or 3) to individual student, using the internal data available to them. Awarding a range reduces some of the cliff-edged decisions and potential inaccuracies.  However, it has the downside of labelling this cohort’s results as different.

Last year despite the very different process for awarding grades students received certificates with a single attainment grade on, exactly as has happened in previous years. 

Another more radical thought is to move away from grades and teachers make a simpler assessment – possibly more relevant at GCSE – is to move to progression statements relating to Level 3/A-level study.  For example: will excel at Level 3; capable of studying at level 3; will require support to study at Level 3.  Which of these alternatives would be best?

Outside of this consultation is the very real concern, expressed above, that the more limited face to face teaching this cohort of students has experienced leaves them less prepared for further study.  Many Sixth Forms did excellent work at providing bridging units last year but this needs a national response to ensure consistently high quality support and provision as current Year 11 progress to Level 3 study.

Private Candidates

Whilst private candidates are relatively few in number, circa 1-2%, of those entered for examinations we need to consider how they may be included within the examination system this year.  I’m torn between asking schools to include them, as supernumerary to the schools grade allowance, with private candidates required to provide a portfolio of work moderated by the school.  The alternative would be for examination boards to set up locality based centres and a reduced examination calendar to assess private candidates.

Examination Fees

Given the recent ridiculous announcement to increase examination fees I feel the need to gather some thoughts on this.  There is the concern that within the consultation OFQUAL is basically creating jobs for the examination boards to justify them charging their examination fee.  OFQUAL are conflicted because whilst they want to do the right thing for young people they also need to maintain a functioning set of examination boards for future years. 

I think examination fees should be minimal this year with the Department for Education providing a support package, where needed, to see the boards through to next year.  However I’d be interested in your thoughts on what level of examination fee should be charged this year.



One thought on “Avoiding Examination Chaos this Summer

  1. The mental health of students must be considered. Their next steps should e guaranteed. The summer should be spent doing all the amazing activities they have missed due to the pandemic.

    Posted by Caroline Vile | January 23, 2021, 9:26 am

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