Oh my goodness, what a right old mess the UK has gotten into over this years school exams. Cancelled exams, statistical models, algorithms to ensure that the dreaded “grade inflation” didn’t happen all conspired to make what can only be described as an omnishambles.
Last week, the Scottish government did a swift U-turn on their results which has put pressure on the rest of the UK to do the same. As I write this a news alert has just popped up on my phone saying the PM has confidence in Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and Ofqual. Back in “normal” times that language was a signifier of a resignation or a sacking, however these days it may well mean that the PM does have confidence in his minister, and the agency despite the mixed messaging from them both over the weekend.
Perhaps one positive thing to come out of this mess is the start of a public debate about statistical modelling, the development and use of algorithms and the implicit and explicit bias that they almost always promote.
However, this is a very messy business and there has been a huge amount of human complicity and error here too. In was pretty obvious in March that these exams would not go ahead.
Students themselves have (quite rightly) been very vocal, and visible in their anger, dismay and outrage at the overriding ‘logic” of the bigger pattern and the curve taking precedence over them as individuals. w.
The blame games have already started, with opposition parties seeing huge political capital to be made. Calls for public inquiries , discussions about what to do next year are all I fear detracting from what is the fundamental issue – our over reliance on exams.
If we had more continuous assessment and less reliance on final exams, if/ when another pandemic strikes or covid-19 has another spike, we wouldn’t have to worry about exam results or models to moderate grade inflation. Students work could be judged on their merits, there would be confidence in the marking through a shared learning outcomes (which if I am not mistaken do already exist). A more holistic view of students as people, with ideas, with agency, with the ability to express. share and reflect on their views would emerge.
We could allow students to exploit digital technologies to develop their portfolios, to share their work more openly, to develop more cross curricular activity, to develop agency and critical thinking skills. Much of this does happen in schools but still, the only thing that really counts are those final exams. That incredibly stressful, unfair and to be honest quite archaic way of testing memory not knowledge and understanding.
It’s said by many commentators that our current PM is a “crammer”. Had jolly japes at Eton, crammed for exams and through his loquacious use of slightly arcane language (see what I did there!) got the grades and the interview patter to get into Oxford and sustain his career in politics and journalism. The final result is what matters – Brexit, the last UK election, the ‘war’ on covid. . . . unfortunately we all have to suffer the chaos of the this period of uncertainty as we rumble from disaster to disaster.
We could change the way we assess our children as they leave school. Teachers already have the skills, knowledge, understanding and technology to do it, we just need to rethink time, space and place for on going assessment. It would be cheaper and more effective imho to spend money on that than on a public inquiry into what has and is still happening with this years results.
I have quote above my desk from a post I saw on social media early on in lockdown, it says “in the rush to return to normal, use this time to consider which parts of normal are worth rushing back to” (attribution Dave Hollis). I find it so sad that we seem to be rushing headlong back into exams instead of seriously contemplating the alternatives. Is this not is the perfect time to change that old “normal” to a far more equitable “new normal” for assessment?