A question of fairness

06 April, 2022 : 16:26
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The first few months of 2022 haven’t brought us much respite from the continuing disruption caused by Covid-19.

High levels of infection continue to affect absence from schools and colleges, and so thoughts have now turned to the question of whether this summer’s exams will be fair or not.

But first of all, we need to think about what we mean by ‘fairness’ when it comes to exams.

The pandemic has been tough for all of us, but it’s young people who have suffered the most as a result of school closures, staff absences and lockdowns.

Aside from the pandemic, questions are often asked about exams – by students, parents and educators. And that’s only right, because no system of exams is ever going to be perfectly fair, so we must aim to strive for the fairest approach possible.

Qualifications are a form of assessment that have become the norm in the UK. Questions are often asked about their value, whether they’ve become harder or easier, or whether they are needed at all. However, regardless of these issues, they are a fact of our culture when it comes to progressing into continuing education or employment. They are how we measure what someone knows, understands or can do.

When we think about the fairness of how young people are assessed, we must think about the fairest form of measurement. Qualifications won’t, and cannot, fully address all the many unequal impacts of the pandemic.

Carefully designed qualifications can cast light on things like the attainment gap between boys and girls, or learners from different socio-economic backgrounds – but they are not a solution to these problems.

The difficulty is that the pandemic is affecting everyone differently. For some, the impact is direct and profound. For others, the impact may be far less.

Looking at attendance figures, more young people than usual have been absent from their place of learning, but these figures don’t give us the whole picture. Is it that learners are attending schools and colleges, but not engaging in their studies? Perhaps learners are absent from school, but are engaged in remote learning, either with or without access to help and support from tutors or parents. The picture is complex and confused.

So, how should we assess young people this year?

It’s not a simple question to answer and first of all there are a few factors to consider:

  • Current qualifications have been designed to be assessed in certain ways – if exams are part of this design, then a move away from them is significant.
  • Right now, qualifications outcomes are the key that fit the lock of progress, and so we must think about the education system as a whole.
  • Mid-pandemic, when the education system is struggling to keep up, is not the best time to introduce big changes.

Given these factors, we believe that the only real options are either to proceed with exams, albeit with some changes, or (if required) to get teachers to carry out assessments, which would be a development of the “centre determined grade” approach that we used last year.

So, let’s start with the main benefits of an exam system:

  • It’s a level playing field with everyone sitting the same test, at the same time, under the same conditions – so there is equity in assessment.
  • It’s a well-understood system – although it will, of course, be a new experience for many learners this year.
  • It’s delivered by an awarding body that promotes impartiality and minimising the workload on schools and colleges, so this allows them to focus on teaching and learning.
  • It motivates learners to do their best and show what they know. It’s also a life skill that prepares them to face other stressful situations in life.
  • In normal years, standards are maintained year after year. This means that the outcomes are fair to learners past, present and future, and that the education system can rely on these outcomes.

Let’s contrast this with “centre determined grades” as we called them in Wales last year:

  • The approach last year was necessarily flexible and allowed schools and colleges to take different approaches according to their context. This meant that the grades learners received were to some extent related to their school or college rather than based only on their attainment.
  • There was no single system, but schools and colleges were asked to explain how they were going to approach assessment in each subject.
  • Schools and colleges had to develop and deliver their own systems of assessment, which presented a huge and sometimes unmanageable burden and impact on teaching and learning.
  • Standards were not maintained and results, especially in AS and A levels, increased like never before, and led to some universities suggesting that they may introduce new entry tests.

These were all accepted as compromises that had to be made last year. The points raised above are not criticisms of the wonderful work undertaken by schools or colleges, nor are they meant to undermine the achievements that young people demonstrated, but they do show that questions of fairness are complex.

If we return to the central purpose of assessment being a way to measure attainment, then the question of fairness becomes: “What is the fairest approach in the circumstances?”

We believe the answer to that question, as things stand, is to run exams. But we also recognise that a harsh snap back to “business as usual” must be avoided – especially considering that learners taking qualifications this year have had huge disruption to their education.

That’s why awarding bodies have made changes to their assessments to reduce what is being assessed. And in Wales, we have followed the same path as our colleagues in England and asked awarding bodies to set standards broadly midway between 2019 (pre-pandemic) and 2021. This means that the minimum marks needed to get certain grades are likely to be lower than normal this summer and grades will be more generous.

Mindful that the pandemic could take another twist or turn, plans are in place for teachers to award grades if the situation changes or if the Welsh Government chooses to cancel exams as a matter of safety.

So, what does this mean for young people taking qualifications this summer? Simply, they need to continue to focus on their studies because, one way or another, they’ll need to take assessments and show us all how great they can be.

This article is adapted from one that was first published in the Times Educational Supplement/TES magazine.

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Philip Blaker is the Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales. He has previously been Director of Operations at UCAS and part of the senior management team at examinations board AQA.

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