Backwards to normal?


Now that UK Education Ministers are assuming that the worst of the pandemic is over, there’s talk of how to measure school-based achievement in 2022. This seems to me to be going back to using time-constrained, on-site unseen written assessments, at least in part, with all the stress and anxiety for school students that they convey. In the UK Guardian newspaper on 30 September, the minister for education, Nadhim Zahawi said, talking about public exams for schoolchildren in the coming year, “We are committed to rigorous standards being fairly applied, and exams are the fairest way to assess students, which is why they will take place next year“. I would argue that this is certainly a contested matter and, in my view, completely wrong.

In higher education globally, when traditional exams were no longer able to be on the menu in 2020-1, much energy and creativity focused on how else we could gauge students’ learning, what else could be used as evidence of their achievement, and how might this lead to long-term improvements in education. A flavour of the wide range of possibilities is reflected in the work of Sally Brown, Kay Sambell and contributors at, for example, many of these features are directly transferable to schools’ education.

I’ve long been aware of the limitations of traditional exams and am hoping that the fruits of many practitioners’ labours during the pandemic will inform the future shape of assessment, bringing into play the many other ways to assess than those of the old exam paradigm.

My thoughts are presently focusing round the following questions:

  1. What are the main dangers in our attempts to quantify students’ learning, using this particular mode of assessment?
  2. How far are we now straying in our test conditions from the everyday learning environment (not least during the pandemic) which surrounds learning, progress and everyday practice?
  3. Whereas traditional exams can address issues around who is actually completing the assignment (‘whodunit?’ I call it) to some extent, which is not really addressed at all well by traditional essays for example, what do unseen, time-constrained exams actually measure, and what are their principal failings?
  4. How far are we still from really being able to measure how well students have succeeded in their efforts to embrace our syllabus content?
  5. How distant is our syllabus content from the authentic reality of what we hope students will achieve?

I plan in future posts to explore some of these questions with fresh views inspired by our experience of the pandemic, and to propose some ways forward to make sure that assessment adds value to the student experience rather than being a cause of dismay, disappointment, and disillusionment.