The proposed alternative to ‘exams’ this year is seriously problematic. Here’s why.
First let me state for the record that there’s no easy answer. Nothing is going to be able to fairly ‘grade’ students and take into account the different experiences they’ve had this year of education and keep everyone happy.
What Gavin Williamson has asked of Ofqual is an impossible task.
That said, there are definitely some WRONG answers.
Last summer, we watched in horror as the algorithm overrode the professional judgement of teachers, and students across the country were disappointed.
This proposal has all the hallmarks of another disaster, but has been crafted in such a way by Gavin Williamson that he’ll be blaming it all on teachers. (Not cool Gav, not cool.)
We all knew that there was the possibility that this year’s exams would be impacted, and in fact, we could see the challenges coming from a mile off. While we knew that the disruption to learning would be significant and vary region to region, we still hoped we’d be in a position to run exams as normal, but knew full well they might not.
It’s therefore frankly unbelievable that we are only just now consulting on an alternative approach.
Gavin Williamson would have us believe that Ofqual and the DfE have been working on a ‘range’ of alternatives for months, and that they simply couldn’t make any decisions because the circumstances would determine which alternative was appropriate. Even so, it took two working weeks from the moment we were told that exams weren’t happening this year (“as normal”) to seeing the suggested alternative. I also can’t see anything that we couldn’t have discussed back in September, meaning we’d have had time to PREPARE. (Sorry, I’ll try not to shout too much.)
The consultation lasts 2 weeks, until the end of January, so by the time it’s all been analysed, it’ll be February half term at the very earliest before we get a definitive answer as to how assessment will be happening this year. That leaves less than a single (short) term before ‘mini -exams’ are due to begin. That’s not enough time to make any of their suggestions work.
Now that the consultation documents are out, they provide more questions than answers.
First, the overall assumption seems to be that exams are being replaced with…. umm…. exams. Not official exams, but unofficial, not-really-standardised exams, that may or may not be mandatory, and which will be marked by teachers, not examiners, but the examiners will have taught the teachers what to do, maybe, provided we can find time for them to do that…
As a maths teacher, one of the things I taught students was how to spot a biased question on a questionnaire. I’d demonstrate with questions like ‘would you agree that Mrs Hughes is the best maths teacher?’, and we’d talk about why that question suggests the ‘right’ answer.
Here’s a list of questions from the consultation:
While the first question allows you to disagree with the setting of papers by an exam board, the rest of the questions give the very clear impression that exam papers are the plan. There’s certainly no alternative suggested.
The consultation for GCSEs, AS- and A-levels consists of 68 questions, across 46 pages.
It’s a classic case of ‘why use 1 word when you can use 27?’.
The document repeats itself regularly and is frankly exhausting to read. Anyone not sufficiently determined to get through it will probably have lost the will to live by page 9 at the latest.
The big problems:
The gist seems to be that schools will be expected to use mini-exams of some kind to provide evidence of the standard a student has achieved. These will be marked by teachers, in what would appear to be a 10-day window(!), during which time they’ll still be teaching a full timetable. Oh, and they’ll have to also make the final decisions about what grades to assign each child in that window too. After they’ve finished the marking.
Marking properly is NOT a quick process. Nor is the moderation involved in assigning grades.
Also, if these exams are compulsory, then are we just using the papers originally designed for the summer? How do we make it fair and take into account what students have and haven’t covered? (And why aren’t we just doing exams still?)
If they aren’t compulsory, then what’s the point? You can’t use them to compare people if not everyone sits them.
Also, if they aren’t all sat at the same time (because if they were, we’d just be doing exams still!), then what’s to stop students from sharing questions and answers on social media and therefore enabling cheating?!
Next up, the actual grades themselves:
“We do not believe that teachers should be asked to decide the grade a student might have achieved had the pandemic not occurred. That would put them in an impossible position, as they would be required to imagine a situation that had not happened. It would also mean that those who use the grades would not know whether the grade indicated what a student knew, understood or could do or, rather, what they might have known, understood or could have done, had things been different. However, we know that there has been differential learning loss, as some students have suffered more disruption to their learning than others.”
So, not like last year, where teachers predicted what students would have achieved had the pandemic not happened.
No, instead we get this:
“We propose grades this year should be based on teachers’ assessments of the evidence of the standard at which their students are performing; it should indicate their demonstrated knowledge, understanding and skills. This is important given that the grades will be indistinguishable from grades issued by exam boards in other years.”
Now this sounds reasonable, until you consider that these students have had their learning interrupted from March 2020 to (currently) Jan 2021, so if we assess them on where they are currently, then that will mean grades will be LOWER FOR EVERYONE this year.
They even acknowledged that in the previous paragraph, but I can’t see anything in the consultation that stops a student being disadvantaged because they were in an area particularly affected by Covid in the autumn term.
Imagine for a moment:
Student A lives in Cornwall, in a ‘nice’ area. His school didn’t have to send any children home to isolate at all in 2020. He has access to a laptop and wifi at home, and he has been able to continue learning remotely.
Student B lives ‘up north’ in a deprived area. She had to isolate on 3 different occasions, so 6 weeks, in the autumn term of lost learning. She has to share a device with her sister, and can’t use the wifi when mum / dad are working from home on Zoom. She’s trying her best, but isn’t getting anywhere near the same amount of ‘teaching’ time, through no fault of her own. (Her government laptop hasn’t arrived yet, obviously.)
Both equally academic, both equally capable.
If we don’t build in some kind of mitigation for the VERY different experience they’ve had this year, then B isn’t going to get into 6th form to do A-levels, meaning her life is going to be potentially very different.
Assigning grades on their current performance is going to seriously screw over the kids who are already facing disadvantages. This was the principle criticism of the, by now, infamous algorithm and we all know how well that went.
A quick detour into how grades are normally assigned:
In the vast majority of subjects, students sit a final exam. Those exams are marked by examiners, and the marks are then collated. They allocate a particular proportion of each grade, based loosely on historical data, and set the grade boundaries according to those proportions. (So, the same sort of % of students get a grade 5 every year.)
A ‘grade 6’ requires different numbers of marks on different papers in different subjects, or even in the same subject but different years.
We have no ‘Grade Descriptors’ any more.
Way back when, pre-Gove, we did more coursework, which used grade descriptors. These would say ‘a grade C student can demonstrate skill X’, or ‘a grade A student can demonstrate skills Y & Z’.
Nowadays those don’t exist. We have no agreed-upon criteria for what each grade entails.
I might think a student who can do trigonometry deserves a grade 7, while a colleague might think that’s actually a grade 6 skill. Worse, the school down the road might not have taught trig yet, so are assigning grade 7 to algebraic equations instead. It’s all totally subjective.
It’s not a ‘training need’ Gavin, it’s because that’s not how our education system works now.
The biggest problem?
This proposal places a HUGE burden on teachers.
Our teachers have worked tirelessly through this pandemic. They’ve gone over and above, and are exhausted already, even without taking into account the fact that they’ve been treated as expendable by the government who are still pushing the lie that teachers aren’t more at risk of covid when in a classroom of 30 people with no PPE, no distancing and often little ventilation.
If this goes ahead as proposed, they’d be adding an intensive marking period of high-stakes exams to their workload at the end of what has to have been the longest, hardest teaching year they’ve ever faced.
They’d then, AFTER the intensive marking, need to spend hours taking those marks and all other evidence into consideration to allocate grades.
Then, they’d spend the summer defending their grades against appeals from parents, as the proposal is for schools to field all appeals in the first instance.
They deserve better.
Yes, it’s going to have to be up to them to assign grades this year, but why is there so much unnecessary red tape in the form of mini-exams being added to the mix? It’s not supportive, it’s just additional pressure and workload.
It’d be simpler for everyone to stick to either end of the spectrum. Either find a way to make exams happen in a safe way, or scrap them entirely and actually trust teachers to use the same process as last year to come up with Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) which take into account the disruption each school has faced. (And then make sure the DfE don’t screw it up with an algorithm, again.)
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Here are the links to the consultations:
PLEASE take the time to submit your response to the consultation – parents need to be heard.
The consultation explained for parents: https://fb.watch/347IWin4kE/
The VTQ consultation explained for parents: https://fb.watch/347PEYK6wD/