Five steps to better exams

by Melvyn Roffe
Principal, George Watson’s College, Edinburgh

Firstly, we have to be humble and realise that all examination systems are flawed. We should thus be very wary about placing too much faith in them under any circumstances. Even in a good year, gross injustices are done to pupils by the examination system. Research has shown compellingly that as many as 25% of grades in GCSEs in England are wrong every year. There is no reason to suppose that the situation is any better in Scotland. Universities and employers (and government) need to wake up to the fragility of the data upon which they make judgements about young people and their abilities.

Secondly, we have to make assessment the servant of the curriculum and not the other way round. This means breaking the stranglehold of exams in S4, 5 and 6 – and to a very large extent the whole of the High School curriculum. In too many schools, the High School experience for pupils is a long drawn out winnowing process by which valuable learning opportunities are first undermined and then jettisoned because a pupil is not taking that subject for Nat 5s or Highers. The evidence is in the catastrophic fate of languages and creative subjects in the Scottish curriculum. We should design the curriculum, then decide which bits of it need to be assessed, how and when, and then design assessment appropriate to that task. At the moment we tend to design the assessment based on some mythical concept of a “gold standard” and as a result the quality of the curriculum, and hence the learning experience of pupils, suffers grievously.

So, thirdly, this means that we shouldn’t be aiming to assess everything in the same way, at the same standard – or at all. Those who advocate continuous assessment are right – but are also wrong if the assessment is intended to be part of a massive standardised system which will collapse under the weight of pressure on teachers and the impossibility of making standards truly comparable. Ideally, pupils through high schools would be able to take a mix of courses, some with qualifications and some without. Universities should engage in making modules of undergraduate study available for those who are ready for it and employers would find it easier to support pupils’ learning without everything having to be wrapped up with the qualifications framework. And many of the distortions in the system are caused by trying to assess many many different types of content and skills to a notional common standard that doesn’t exist in the real world.

Fourthly, we shouldn’t obsess about trying to assess everything at the same time. Key skills such as numeracy and literacy could be assessed entirely objectively in a similar way to the driving test theory exam when young people need to prove their level of competence to a potential employer or Higher Education institution. This would be a more accurate and relevant test – a bit like the IELTS test required for international students to gain entry to UK universities. It would also ensure that there was a rigorous focus in schools on those skills without which no one is likely to fully thrive in adulthood, but it would avoid creating an artificial trip wire across the path of those who may develop those skills later than most or who face particular challenges. To take the driving test analogy another way, I often make the point that – as someone with limited spatial awareness from a family that did not own a car – there would have been no way I would have been able to pass my driving test if I had been given one chance to do so on a random date in the summer when I turned seventeen. Yet that is how we give (or deny) young people access their own futures.

And fifthly, it follows from the above that we need to make sure that all qualifications are available to all young people at a time that suits their learning needs. Today I learned from a colleague that it is not currently possible to take Higher Engineering Science or Physics at any FE College in Scotland. I really hope that proves to be untrue, but it is certainly true that access to many Highers and particularly Advanced Highers is a postcode lottery which, like most postcode lotteries, is skewed against the postcodes with the highest incidence on deprivation. Scottish National Qualifications should be should be just that: qualifications that are available nationally.

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