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Centre for Education Policy and Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO)


We create research to improve the education system and equalise opportunities for all.


Retain external examination as the primary means of assessment

By Blog editor, on 22 June 2023

By Dr Dominic P. Kelly

Earlier this year, CEPEO launched ‘New Opportunities’, a list of practical priorities for future governments based on the best existing evidence across the social sciences. One of our recommendations regarded calls to abolish high stakes educational assessment by traditional means (i.e., ‘high stakes’ external examinations). Although these calls are not novel, in the wake of disruption to traditional GCSE and A-Level examinations in the past few years, those calls have certainly grown recently. Critics of external examinations argue that they are merely a test of rote memory of impractical knowledge and neither measure the underlying skill they claim to nor improve a child’s educational experiences or later outcomes. There is additional suggestion that these exams lack predictive value for future educational achievement, particularly in higher education, and provide additional stress for students. Based on the existing empirical evidence, we disagree with these assertions. On this basis, our recommendation is to retain external examination as the primary means of assessment and contend that not doing so would harm equity between students in a way that outweighs other concerns around external assessment. Yet, we also advocate for evidence-based improvements to assessments to be made with the intention of holistically improving both the examination system and national curricula and we detail some potential changes below.


External examinations are more resilient to examiners’ bias

One primary concern about external examinations is that they are disadvantageous for students from minority groups compared to coursework or continuous assessment. Although continued effort is needed to modernise the curriculum and provide content and skills that are relevant to diverse backgrounds, the evidence that alternatives reduce disadvantage for minority groups is lacking. It is often suggested that internal assessments by teachers would be an optimal alternative. But evidence suggests that teachers are prone to either showing bias or being inaccurate in their assessments of students from minority groups. Research has shown that some teachers demonstrably show ethnic bias in their assessments such that nearly three times as many Black Caribbean pupils received predicted scores below their actual scores than White students. Additional research also suggests that students from higher socioeconomic status (SES) are more likely to have more favourable internal assessments by teachers than those students from lower SES backgrounds. Although it is sometimes thought that students from low SES backgrounds do comparatively better in coursework than examinations, evidence from the UK suggests that this is not the case. In addition, concerns about examinations causing increasing in student anxiety are contested: although test anxiety is a notable phenomenon among students, it has been suggested that there is minimal effects of test anxiety on performance in GCSE examinations and that children’s wellbeing or happiness was not related to their participation in Key Stage 2 external examinations. Therefore, systems without anonymous external assessments are thought to have substantial biases and this would have deleterious effects for reducing inequalities in the UK education system.


External examinations can be complemented by improvements made elsewhere

Despite our recommendation that external assessments remain the primary means of assessment, that is not to say that these assessments could not be complemented by evidence-based approaches to reform to the current curricula and assessment. First, concerns over the practice of ‘teaching to the test’ could be addressed by changing the content of the external examinations to reward a richer approach to teaching, which would likely benefit students. For example, providing examples with “higher level” items in classroom assessments (which encourage deeper processing of information than items that only require rote learning) may yield comparatively stronger performance on both low- and high-level items in external examinations. Incidentally, reducing the amount of time teachers spend on providing their own assessments of students could potentially provide more time for other activities in the classroom. Second, portfolios and other types of summative assessments can have utility as a complement to traditional exams but they should be marked externally by someone unfamiliar with the student to avoid biases. Third, and most of all, the administration of thoughtful formative assessment has the potential to prepare students for external examinations and potentially providing a greater context for external examinations to be interpreted within. Formative assessment has been shown to have notable positive effects on pupil attainment and can be structured in a way devoid of teacher bias. Given the evidence that single assessments of cognition can be affected by stress, sleep and other extraneous factors, there are benefits to repeatedly assessing smaller and more specific elements of knowledge or cognition in a way that complement single external assessments and benefit learning environments – as long as it can be done objectively and with minimal bias from educators.



We advocate for external assessments to continue to be the primary means of educational assessment in the UK. Switching to internal teacher-based assessment would set back attempts to reduce inequalities in the UK education system. Furthermore, we would argue that concerns about stress are surpassed by evidence of teacher bias and inaccuracies in internal assessments. There are additional benefits to students and teachers of summative or continuous formative assessment, but these are complements rather than substitutes for external examination. The content and format of external assessments, whether high-stakes or continuous, should continue to be re-evaluated in line with well-founded and methodologically rigorous research.

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