Exam Malpractice Commission

Former ASCL general secretary, John Dunford, writes about the Commission on Examination Malpractice, which he chaired, and which reported in September 2019.

At a time when ethical leadership in the political sphere is not coming from the top in either the US or the UK, with an appalling example being set to young people by some senior politicians, it is even more timely that the ASCL Framework for Ethical Leadership  (ASCL Framework) has come into the public domain and is influencing the way in which schools are led. Never has ethical leadership been so important.

The underlying theme of the Independent Commission on Examination Malpractice, which reported in September 2019, was that all players in the exam and assessment world must take an ethical approach if malpractice is to be prevented. When the Commission was seeking a peg on which to hang its ethical message on malpractice, it was the ASCL Framework that provided the model.

The headline recommendation in the report of the Independent Commission on Examination Malpractice  was a ban on all watches in examination rooms, but the report goes much deeper than this and addresses some fundamental issues in the conduct of exams and assessment. 

Some schools and colleges already ban all watches from exam rooms, collecting them in with mobile phones as candidates enter. All centres are advised to adopt this practice.

The Commission was established by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) and given complete independence and a wide remit. Commission membership was drawn from across the education service, including Duncan Baldwin of ASCL representing secondary school leaders, Mike Buchanan of ISC and HMC representing the independent sector, and Eddie Playfair of the Association of Colleges representing the further education sector. Governors, exams officers, classroom teachers, higher education and the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA) were also represented.

Ethical culture
The exams system, the Commission found, is not a patient in need of major surgery, but there is much that can be improved if malpractice is to be prevented more successfully. The vast majority of the several hundred thousand people involved in the exams and assessment system act with integrity and professionalism. The overwhelming majority of candidates do not commit malpractice. Indeed, the rate of candidate malpractice is 0.02 per cent – one in 5,000 students – and a high proportion of those offences involve taking a mobile phone into an exam room.

The main recommendation for school and college leaders is that they should build and maintain an ethical culture in their institution. This should come from the top and influence the way in which everyone – staff and students – behaves. 

Following the ASCL ethical principles, this culture of honesty and openness should enable staff and students to report matters of concern, in the knowledge that a clear whistleblowing policy in the institution will give them anonymity if they request it.

Alongside exams officers, heads of centre have a huge degree of responsibility for the proper conduct of exams. Their critical role in the system is reflected in the National Centre Number Head of Centre Declaration which, in the view of the Commission, needs re-wording in a way that reflects better the balance between what the centre does for the awarding organisation in hosting exams (a lot) and what the awarding organisations do to support the head of centre in this role (not enough).

Exams officers, their line managers and heads of centre would benefit from improved communications and training opportunities.

The Commission recommended that there should be a non-mandatory professional qualification for exams officers, whose training courses should be subject to a Quality Mark system. 

Every centre would benefit from having at least one Chartered Assessor, accredited by the CIEA, whose expertise in all aspects of assessment, including the proper conduct of exams and assessments, would help to prevent malpractice.

Impact of technology
The Commission’s consideration of the impact of technology on exam malpractice goes well beyond mobile phones and smart watches. The report lists a range of technology-based malpractice methods, some of which are openly on sale as ‘cheating devices’, and also has some recommendations for JCQ and the awarding bodies about how they should use technology more to combat malpractice, as Pearson did to good effect after the leak of an A-level maths paper this summer. 

A new use of social media occurred in 2019, with an attempt to sell hoax exam papers. JCQ should clarify that this is a form of malpractice and is subject to sanctions.

Of vital importance to centres, the Commission made many recommendations about how JCQ documentation could be made more user-friendly, jargon-free, simplified and rationalised, with a search facility enabling centres to access information more easily. 

In parallel with this, the report recommended that JCQ should improve its communications to centres, with changes in regulations highlighted in good time.

SEND considerations
The Commission looked deeply into the present unsatisfactory situation on access arrangements and special considerations, with the numbers of applications for both increasing greatly in recent years. The reasons for this increase are not entirely clear, with some institutions having a very high number and other, less well-resourced, centres having far fewer than their entry numbers would suggest. Under the Equality Act 2010, it is important that those with SEND are on a level playing field with their peers in exams and the Commission found this to be an area where JCQ and awarding bodies need to do further work.

Scribes and readers for those with access arrangements should have no personal connection with the candidate and, the Commission believes, should preferably be appointed from outside the centre.

Recommendations for students
From a survey of young people, the Commission found that students want a high degree of fairness between exam candidates, but their knowledge of malpractice and potential sanctions was often weak. These aspects should be stressed to all candidates from the outset of their courses. The Commission suggested that it is good practice to require students to sign a form before the exam season, stating that they understand fully the rules on malpractice and the consequences if they cheat.

In this, as in all aspects of good exam practice, school and college leaders should take the lead on preventing malpractice, but ultimately it is the responsibility of everyone in the system to act ethically and with integrity.

The Commission expressed the hope that the exam and assessment system will move forward, making better use of technology to develop a more valid and reliable system in ways that minimise malpractice. It would be good to see the government carrying out work on how increasingly sophisticated digital and e-assessment could be used in ways that would both improve reliability and validity, and reduce malpractice.
Posted: 07/10/2019 09:28:13