Future-Proofing Assessment

This article originally appeared in Leader magazine
Issue 122 | Spring Term 1 2022

What have the past two years told us about assessment reform? Tom Middlehurst shares his insights on what the future might mean for assessment.

Since the first national lockdown, and subsequent decision to cancel national exams, we have been on an extraordinary journey with assessments: CAGs, TAGs, rogue algorithms, mitigations, adaptions, contingency arrangements, centre policies, appeals and changes in grade profile. So, what lessons can we take away from the past two years, and what might this mean for the future of assessment? 

An appetite for change 

The past year has seen a staggering growth in commissions, advocacy groups and reports into what the future of assessment should look like, not least the recommendations in ASCL’s own Blueprint for a Fairer Education System (www.ascl.org.uk/blueprint). 

There is also cross-party support for thinking differently, or at least reflecting on, assessment. Conservatives such as Robert Halfon and Ken Baker have been loud voices in the debate, and it continues to be Labour policy to remove the burden of assessment at both KS2 and KS4.
 
This renewed interest in assessment reform shows there is a strength of feeling from the sector, as well as parents and students, to look afresh at assessment. 

A note of caution, however, for the vocal advocates for reform; there are at least as many arguing that we need to be more conservative in any change. The reforms made by the coalition government are not yet fully embedded. Many reformed qualifications only had a few years of implementation, before all exams were cancelled in 2020. We don’t yet fully know what the impact of curriculum changes will be on young people’s life chances and opportunities, and there are many who would argue we need to let current reforms fully embed before we embark on further change. 

Is this a timely conversation? 

Despite these concerns, there is a gathering head of steam behind the need for change. In the timing of reforms, advocates of change diverge in opinion. Some suggest we should exploit the perceived weaknesses of the current system, laid bare by the past two years and push for immediate change. Others argue that the immediate exam cohorts in our schools and colleges deserve stability and reassurance, having lived and learned during the pandemic, and that too much further disruption will only increase inequalities. 

In ASCL’s blueprint, a core principle is that any reform – not just to assessment – is inevitably disruptive, and takes time, energy and effort from you as school and college leaders. Therefore, we suggest that major changes should only happen if we are really confident that the benefits are worth the disruption. The blueprint also acknowledges that there are no quick fixes. Meaningful and sustainable change takes time and commitment. 

What are the big issues being discussed? 

Across the various commissions and groups looking at this, a few key themes emerge: 

  • the need to rethink the 14–16 stage, and whether GCSEs still serve a purpose given the participation age has been 18 for some time 
  • whether we are assessing the right things, in the right way 
  • if a comparable outcomes approach is still appropriate and still carries public confidence 
  • how to ensure all learners leave school with dignity and pride in their results 
  • what role technology could play in the administration and marking of assessments to increase fairness and reduce workload and cost 
  • what role teacher assessment should play in future assessments 
  • ​how to break the damaging link between assessment and institutional accountability 
These are big questions, and I won’t attempt to answer them all in this article. Instead, ASCL will be engaging with members over the coming months for your views. 
The forgotten third 

Another recurring theme is what to do about ‘the forgotten third’, following ASCL’s enquiry in 2018. Our report (www.ascl.org.uk/forgottenthird) argued that, after over a decade in formal education, it was wrong to label a third of students as having ‘failed’ their GCSEs, especially in English and maths, seen as passport qualifications vital for progression. 

In our blueprint, we recommend a review of comparable outcomes. Certainly, comparable outcomes have their benefits, especially during times of change and turbulence. They provide reassurance to students and their parents that they won’t be treated unfairly because of a new specification or change in assessment. 

Ofqual would argue that our current model allows for systemic improvements to be reflected in grading, through the use of the National Reference Test (NRT). For example, in 2019, maths results went up as a result of the NRT and would have gone up even higher in 2020 had exams gone ahead. 

So, what’s at the root of this problem? The way of grading or the exams themselves? 

The DfE missed a trick when it introduced reformed GCSEs and a numbered grading system. At that point, we could have moved to a model where students’ achievement was seen on a relative scale from 1 to 9. Instead, the language of ‘pass/fail’ crept back in, and subsequent policies, including accountability measures and post-16 conditions of funding, mean that a third of young people are destined, in the language of the system, to have failed their GCSEs. 

The Emperor’s got no clothes on 

Despite the strengths of comparable outcomes, the outrage that ensued when an algorithm was used to adjust CAGs in 2020 must make us question whether comparable outcomes still retain public confidence. True, the algorithm itself was flawed, but many parents were aghast that their child’s results were determined by a formula. The media story revealed the fact that, in ‘normal’ years, the public really believed that grades told you what a child can and can’t do – that we could describe the difference between a Grade 5 and a Grade 6 student. The Ofqual emperor, as it were, was revealed to have no clothes on. 

A criteria-referenced approach works better in some subjects than in others but tends to be deeply flawed if no sort of ranking is applied. However, with important qualifications like English and maths GCSEs, achieving a Grade 4 should tell us something about what students know and can do. 

A new gold-standard passport qualification 

Perhaps the answer to this is a new qualification, which would serve a different purpose from GCSEs, that all young people or adult learners would take when they’re ready. This would tell future educators or employers exactly what an individual can do – and be equally as important as getting into a competitive university as getting a part-time job in sixth form. 

Throughout 2022, ASCL will be exploring what this might look like. Building on the blueprint, we want to get cross-party consensus to see whether this is needed, and how this will support all learners and all communities. We’d love to hear your views on this too. 

So, what have we learned? 

The past two years have undoubtedly raised several questions and revealed a number of misconceptions and assumptions about how assessment works. However, emerging from this, it’s clear there is no common view across the sector. 

Ultimately this shows us the limitations of assessment – whatever the model. Assessment can only tell us so much; we cannot expect exams to create fully work-ready young people and there will always be people who think we should assess different content in different ways. But at the end of the day, we need an assessment model that works for all learners, encourages high expectations for all, and above all – especially post-pandemic – never labels an individual a failure as a result of society’s own injustices

Tom Middlehurst
ASCL Curriculum and Inspection Specialist
@Tom_Middlehurst

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