Sensible debate required -remembering its politicians who created the system enforced by amenable regulators


The recent expose by the Daily Telegraph of apparently dodgy practice by at least some examiners and exam boards has kick started a debate about testing, assessment and examinations. Arent some exam boards easier than others? Why do our children have to sit so many tests? Isnt political pressure leading to year on year grade inflation,? How come, having sat through at least  ten years of education, so many young people with qualifications   still lack the abilities and skills to thrive in the jobs market and are ill prepared for higher education too?

Some critics are calling for radical change in assessment and examinations, the cost of which has spiralled in recent years so that the exam budget is now the second largest item in secondary school budgets, after staffing. What happens in the classroom is  driven mainly  by the demands and requirements  of the assessment and accountability frameworks. So, if we want the education landscape to change, shouldn’t more attention be paid to how the assessment and accountability frameworks work  in practice and  how they relate to each other and the resulting  impact they have on the  teaching and the learning environment?  If this is the case then a curriculum review should surely,  logically work in tandem with an assessment review. Schools  decisions are strongly driven by the incentive framework in which  they are placed. So,  the national exam system and the central importance to schools of the performance tables  tend to  over-ride everything else that happens in schools.

Critics such as Anthony Seldon and Professor Ken Robinson have long complained that schools have pretty much lost any idea of what education is for, driving out creativity and independent thought while  becoming, instead, exam factories encouraging rote learning  and teaching to the test.  The chairman of the Independent Schools Council, Barnaby Lenon, has just  called for greater use of sophisticated multiple-choice questions and teacher assessment in A-levels and GCSEs and advocates the introduction of qualified chartered assessors, with every school having at least one chartered assessor to act as a guarantor of standards of teacher assessment. (the debate over multiple choice questioning polarises opinion)

Professor Mick Waters believes that the exam system undoes so much of the good work teachers and others do in exciting in children a passion for the respective subjects. Waters wrote in Secondary Education (5 Jan) ‘ Too many exams, though, are examples of a “spit out all you can remember” experience so that you can pass the exam and then forget it all. As a society, we persist with the rite of passage experience for young people, archaic in nature, a sort of trial by ordeal. When else in life would we enter a room, sit a metre away from everyone and work in silence for two hours? In real life, presented with a problem at work, most people immediately contact others, ask opinion, test solutions, seek information, pool knowledge and construct solutions that others critique.’ Waters , of course,  used to be a  senior regulator  with the now somewhat discredited QCA, so  he was  very much part of helping to uphold and sustain  the  system he   now  so  readily condemns.

John Dunford says that we now need to put more trust in the professional judgment of teachers to mark students’ work through the course and use those marks to award a grade, or at least a substantial part of it, say 50%. Alongside this, a system is needed to give validity, and thus all-important public credibility, to the grades awarded by teacher assessment. Dunford writes in the Guardian ‘With a network of chartered assessors across the country, accredited by the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, which I chair, to carry out in-course assessment to external standards and to act as guarantors of the assessment judgements of other teachers in their schools or colleges, we would have a system that would have greater validity than existing grades and be fairer to students. Instead of harking back to a golden era of assessment that never really existed, the government should set in place a thorough review of assessment and examinations and look at how teacher assessment could be used more effectively. The Chartered Institute stands ready to play its part in delivering an assessment system that would set the world-class standards to which politicians frequently ask educators to aspire’

Dunford believes that the Government, as a matter of urgency, should  set in motion a  major review of assessment and examinations from which the previous government also shrank, but which is sorely needed and that it makes sense to do this alongside the review of the curriculum, the timescale of which has been extended.

Not everyone will agree with Dunfords approach. Indeed if you look at how pupils coursework modules have been assessed and the weaknesses and pitfalls inherent in that system, the system Dunford suggests looks likely to share many of its in-built weaknesses.  Indeed, not everyone shares Dunfords confidence that teachers, under  huge pressure will, more often than not,   exercise  disinterested professional  judgement when it comes to rating their own pupils work.

It would be a mistake to heap the lions share of the   blame for all this on  the exam boards .Yes, they have made mistakes, working within a pressure cooker of a system,  and what the Daily Telegraph exposed is unacceptable but it’s the politicians and regulators who have established the enabling environment ,both in terms of assessment and accountability ,  in which this can  happen, along with the  perverse incentives that go with it . The Boards have to react and respond quickly to the shifting priorities and  agendas set by politicians.  Cambridge Assessment called a couple of years ago for an adult debate about assessment, testing and the perception of grade inflation-and the silence from politicians was at the time, and indeed until very recently, deafening.

There is a strong case for a  review of the way we assess our pupils and the impact this has on the education of our children. Politicians tend to focus though on structures because that is ,in a certain sense, the easy  bit  of the equation. The more difficult bits are teacher quality and effectiveness, the curriculum , accountability and assessment.The Government is making an effort to address some of these elements but progress is  painfully slow, and when it comes to assessment.. hard to identify.

Note-The Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors, Chaired by John  Dunford  who  was general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (formerly the Secondary Heads Association) from 1998 to 2010,  is a professional body dedicated to supporting the needs of everyone involved in educational assessment.

Its members include everyone involved in assessment, from senior examiners, moderators and markers to individuals with an interest in or responsibility for assessment in primary schools, secondary schools, colleges, universities, training centres and other educational organisations. Dr Neill Day a senior examiner said  “We have a teaching profession and we have examiners. Each has a role in maintaining standards, yet one has a formal identity while the other exists in its shadow. With the formation of the Institute, we have the chance to recognise and encourage examining and examiners for their important role”


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