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Expert opinion from IOE, UCL's Faculty of Education and Society


Assessment in primary schools: reducing the ‘Sats effect’

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 7 June 2024

This is the final in a mini-series of blog posts about primary education from the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Pedagogy (HHCP) at IOE. Each post addresses key points that are included in a new HHCP briefing paper written to inform debate about education in England as we approach the general election. The four posts are:

      1. In the hands of new government: the future of primary education in England
      2. Children, choice and the curriculum
      3. Hands on learning: a progressive pedagogy
      4. Assessment in primary schools: reducing the ‘Sats effect’
Students sitting at their desks taking exams. Credit: Cavan for Adobe via Adobe Stock.

Credit: Cavan for Adobe via Adobe Stock.

Alice Bradbury

Assessment plays a key role in any teacher’s work: through formative assessment, teachers understand what children can do and what they need to learn next. This guides how learning is planned and what is taught. However, the current assessment landscape in England is dominated by statutory, summative assessment, where the purpose of the assessment is not to help children learn, but to measure what they can do. This is one part of the education system which, as we in HHCP argue in our new briefing paper, needs a different approach. (more…)

‘How do you assess that people have become more tolerant?’ and other challenges of teaching ‘difficult’ histories  

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 25 May 2022


Mary Richardson,  Becky Hale, Tom Haward and Kwaku Adjepong.

We concluded our Holocaust Memorial Day blog about teaching ‘difficult’ histories with the proposition: ‘We could assess these kinds of knowledge, but is it appropriate to do so?’ Since then, we have been exploring this idea further.

Our current focus on assessing how students understand and learn about ‘difficult histories’ arose from research (2019-20), led by the UCL Centre for Holocaust Education,to explore teaching about the Holocaust in English secondary schools, which surveyed more than 1,000 teachers. The original study was not about assessment, but we found that teachers were keen to explore ways to reflect on their teaching and their students’ experiences of learning about the Holocaust. However, some noted that care is necessary when considering how assessment could happen, as this interviewee stated:

…we need to give them the emotional space to actually realise what the topic’s about, and the impact it has on people, and I think if we start bolting on assessments to it we lose some of that ability for them to actually self-reflect. (more…)

Top of the blogs: what topics made it into our readers’ 2021 hit parade?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 6 January 2022

Diane Hofkins.

2021 was not the year we were hoping for. Dominated by the pandemic, it was a year of disrupted education, work and recreation. Many people lost friends and family members, Physical and mental health suffered.

As with every aspect of life, the pandemic cast its shadow across every topic touched on by the IOE Blog last year: the challenges of school leadership, mental health, the arts, remote learning, relationships with parents, and especially inequality. In January, Melanie Ehren and colleagues wrote of the ‘Matthew Effect’: “For whoever has, to him shall be given […] but whoever has not, from him shall be taken away even that he has”. The Covid Generation, they said, will have educational winners and losers. And (more…)

GCSEs: is the basket beyond repair, or just overloaded?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 28 May 2021

IOE Events.

The case for high-stakes exams at age 16, in the form of GCSEs, has felt precarious at times, especially so since the education and training participation age increased to age 18.  However, as we heard in both our latest public debate, on GCSEs, and our previous event on closing the attainment gap post-Covid, the GCSE system retains many supporters, even though some are surprised to find themselves taking that position.

For this  debate, were joined by IOE colleagues Mary Richardson (chair), Tina Isaacs and Gill Wyness; Tim Oates of Cambridge Assessment; and campaigner on reliability in exam marking, Dennis Sherwood.  Read more about our panellists here.

We also heard how in some cases the calls to disband GCSEs hide ulterior (more…)

Open book exams: open season for cheaters or a better form of assessment?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 19 May 2021

Gwyneth Hughes.

The start of the pandemic in March 2020 caused universities to do a rapid pivot from the well-entrenched invigilated, timed, unseen exams to online tests mostly taken at home.

Software can monitor students taking exams in their own homes by using video or proctoring methods, or by locking down the examinee’s computer. But by far the most straightforward option is open book exams with extended timescales. This is mostly what happened at the University of London. But does this mean better assessment or more cheating?

For an open-book exam, students can search online and access books, notes, and other available resources online or in print. If the exam writing window remains (more…)

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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 20 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?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 26 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

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 13 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?

By Blog Editor, IOE Digital, on 13 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.