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Exams: changing the rules of the game while you are playing will not rebuild trust

Blog Editor, IOE Digital26 February 2021

Melanie Ehren.

In December last year, Ofqual announced a new expert group to rebuild trust in the exam system. The group is to look into how data on schools’ and students’ performance could be “better and more widely shared”, thereby prising open the box of secrets containing the data and processes that drive the awarding of exam grades.

The group’s appointment could not come at a better time; Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has since announced that teachers’ estimated grades will replace cancelled GCSEs and A-levels in England this summer, saying that he would “trust in teachers rather than algorithms”, a reference to last year’s exams U-turn. Today, Government announced new plans for teacher assessed GCSEs, AS and A levels which will include a series of ‘mini-exams’.

But is this alternative approach the best way forward to rebuild trust in exams? Or do we need a wider set of strategies?

To answer the question, we first look at whose trust needs to be rebuilt. (more…)

Exam fever: more coursework and less reliance on final tests would make it easier to award accurate grades

Blog Editor, IOE Digital20 March 2020

Tina Isaacs and Mary Richardson.

Yesterday Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson announced the cancellation of this year’s GCSEs and A level examinations. “We will make sure that pupils get the qualifications they need and deserve for their academic career”, Mr Johnson said.

The qualifications regulator, Ofqual, has not yet stated how this might be done but it has pledged to ‘work through the detail’ urgently with the Department for Education. As former employees of both Ofqual and an examination board before joining UCL we couldn’t be more sympathetic to their quandary; examinations and awarding are highly complex processes and subject to continual scrutiny and criticism.  Coming up with plausible grades for students who have been studying away for two years and will now face no examination to determine their achievements, is not a task to be taken lightly.

While extraordinary, the current context does put into sharp relief the risks in heavy reliance on end of course exams, especially when combined with a diminution of teacher (more…)

Can students learn how to solve mathematics problems by taking maths tests?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital26 February 2020

By Francesca Borgonovi, British Academy Global Professor, UCL Institute of Education and Francesco Avvisati, Analyst, Directorate for Education and Skills, OECD.

Few subjects in education spark as much controversy as tests. Many people recognise that tests are useful to students because they provide a strong incentive to study rather than procrastinate; they can help teachers because they provide information about what students know and what they do not know; and they are useful to education policy makers because they promote accountability. But most people consider tests as little more than a bitter medicine that one needs to swallow to get better; and many worry that, as with medicine, too much testing may have toxic effects – so much so that “teaching to the test” and “learning for a test” are seen as diverting valuable time and resources from education. (more…)

Seven principles for a fair and relevant assessment system

Blog Editor, IOE Digital13 November 2018

Ruth Dann.
In my contribution to last week’s IOE Debate asking ‘What if… we designed our school testing and assessment system from scratch?‘ I distilled what I think are 7 key principles that might help us shape our examination and assessment system differently.
Principle 1. That all tests and examinations can only ever be a proxy measurement, sampling what someone knows. All exam results will have measurement error. Exam boards try to minimise such error, by giving careful attention to issues of validity and reliability. However, in England, for GCSE and A levels, we do not know how questions will affect different subgroups of the candidate cohort, as questions are not trialled in advance because they might be leaked.
Of further concern are issues of bias and fairness which extend beyond the test paper and should include consideration of the opportunities that pupils have had to learn, (more…)

Testing times: how can we build a system that will assess what we value?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital13 November 2018

IOE Events.
In response to the many criticisms levelled at England’s testing and assessment system, from its effects on children’s mental health to its impact on their learning, for our latest IOE debate we posed the question What if… we re-designed our school testing and assessment system from scratch?. To help us reflect on this provocation we were delighted to welcome: Ruth Dann, Associate Professor of assessment at the IOE; Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment; Dave Mellor of AQA; and Ken Jones of the National Education Union and Goldsmiths. Their inputs sparked some lively Tweeting at #IOEDebates, and some great comments and questions from our audience.
(more…)

Hot off the press: the IOE debates series for 2018/19

Blog Editor, IOE Digital13 September 2018

IOE Events.
Last year we launched our new flagship events programme, which includes our much- loved debates series What if…? radical and inspiring ideas for alternative education futures. Through this series we bring together prominent speakers on education issues – from policy makers to academics, practitioners to parents – to hear their views on key debates in the field.
So far, we’ve tackled education’s role (or not) in social mobility, vocational education’s Cinderella status, teaching’s image problem, the (unmet) needs of schools operating in the most challenging circumstances, the special educational needs and disability (SEND) crisis, the AI revolution, the promise of educational neuroscience, and how to get all kids to love (or at least not hate) mathematics. Phew. (You can watch all these back/listen back to all these here, or find write ups here.)
But there are many crucial topics that we haven’t yet covered. We intend to put that right in 2018/19.
To get us started, on 1 October we’ll be looking at young people’s mental health and well-being – asking What if…we wanted our kids to be happier?. Young people’s (more…)

We could end exam distress by removing the root cause: exams

Blog Editor, IOE Digital19 June 2018

John White
The anxiety generated by school examinations is well-known. Responses to a Guardian call-out in May for views on the new GCSEs produced ‘an outpouring that was overwhelmingly – although not exclusively – negative. The more extreme responses included accounts of suicide attempts by two pupils at one school, breakdowns, panic attacks and anxiety levels so intense that one boy soiled himself during a mock exam… “I have never, in over 20 years of teaching, seen pupils suffer with so much anxiety and other symptoms of poor mental health in the run up to exams,” says an English teacher.
There are kinds of personal distress that have nothing to do with school examinations – things like depression, grief, pain caused by sickness or physical, emotional and sexual abuse, fear of being bullied, of your family not having enough money to eat, of police prejudice.
All of us (sadists and psychopaths apart) are horrified by others’ suffering. We want (more…)

Life after levels: is the new Year 6 maths test changing the way teachers teach?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital19 July 2016

Melanie Ehren
Earlier this month (5 July), the Department for Education published the results of the Key Stage 2 test for 10 and 11-year-olds. The publication was awaited with more anxiety than usual as this year’s test was the first one on the new national curriculum. One of the major changes in the test is the removal of the ‘old’ national curriculum levels 3, 4 and 5, where children were expected to reach at least a level 4. The level 6 paper for the most able children has also gone and results are now reported as ‘scaled scores[1]’. Each pupil now has to achieve at least a score of 100 to reach the expected standard. It seems like a minor change with little impact on how teachers teach mathematics and prepare children for the test, but recent findings from our Nuffield-funded study suggest otherwise.
We interviewed 30 Year 6 teachers in schools performing both below and above the floor standard in Mathematics. Interviews took place prior to the changes in the test in (more…)

More than marking: what is ‘assessment literacy’?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital6 April 2016

Gwyneth Hughes
Nobody would dispute that teachers should have a high level of literacy and be able to read and write well. But what about ‘assessment literacy’?
It is well known that assessment is a tricky business. But being able to mark students’ work fairly and accurately – in other words knowing the rules – is not enough; assessors must also ensure that students learn from assessment. Being able to give students helpful feedback and making sure that they make good use of it is as essential to assessment literacy (or assessment know-how) as spelling and grammar are to writing.
Research at the UCL Institute of Education in the Assessment Careers project showed, surprisingly, that even experienced postgraduate students merely read their feedback and (more…)

The headmaster of Eton may be right but so what?

Blog Editor, IOE Digital19 August 2014

Michael Young
I welcome John White’s plan to make contact with Chinese educators uneasy about their ‘success’ on the PISA League Tables and look forward to his next IOE blog reporting his discussions.
However, the fact that the headmaster of Eton attacks our examination system as archaic – something virtually everyone working in the public sector of education knows all too well – is hardly news. What really would be news would be if Eton decided to stop entering pupils for any public examinations until the system was reformed. Then, especially if a number of the other elite schools followed suit, we might get a Royal Commission with the remit to examine both why such an anti-educational system of examinations had emerged and what might be the alternatives.
No complex modern education system could exist without some form of examination system. Furthermore, it should be as fair as possible as a guide to those who have to select students for either jobs or university places and at the same time provide reliable feedback to teachers and students about their achievements.
The problem is that the relationships between public examinations, the curriculum (which defines the purposes of education), and the professional work of teachers, have become grossly distorted. Instead of examinations guiding teachers and students and providing feedback on the curriculum, they have come to replace the curriculum in deciding what is taught and how, and to be a major control force over teachers’ pedagogy and student learning. Taken to its limits, this turns teachers into technicians and all but the very highest achieving students into exam fodder, those that do not give up.
Unless any debate about our examination system begins with asking how we can shift towards a curriculum-led rather than an examination-led system, critiques, such as that of Eton’s headmaster, whose school sits at the pinnacle of the system he depicts as ‘archaic’, only deflect us from tackling its fundamental problems.