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Forget A-Level and GCSE results grade inflation, it’s traditional exams that are not fit for purpose

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

Year-round teacher-led assessment is the only way to really map a student ‘s full learning progress – not their ability to cram

GCSE and A-Level pupils have shown tremendous resilience over the last 18 months. Instead of celebrating that, we are again letting them down by telling them their (teacher assessed) exam results this week could be “inflated”.

In Tuesday’s A-Level results a record 44.8 per cent of UK A-level entries were marked at A* or A this year, compared to just 25.5 per cent in 2019. And 30 per cent of GCSE students on Thursday gained grades 7 and above – equivalent to A and A* – compared with 27.5 per cent in 2020 and 22 per cent in 2019.

I totally disagree that these grades are not fair or representative of student’s hard work. It is the traditional exam system that is guilty of systematic grade deflation. Year-round teacher-led assessment is the only way to really map a student’s full learning progress – not their ability to cram.

Exams are a useful tool, but not as effective as utilising a teacher’s full awareness of a student’s strengths. Exams may be convenient and easy to manage – but they are not fit for purpose. To change things, many in government and society will need to move beyond an outdated – some would say elitist – obsession with traditional exams.

Many of my colleagues in the teaching profession know that there must be a better way. And no one wants a repeat of last year’s algorithm fiasco – one of the most damaging moments in all my years in education where pupils and teachers lost all faith in the Government.

The first step is to understand just how poor traditional exams are at preparing children for the working world. Cramming for weeks (or days) as opposed to applying consistent focus throughout the year is not only intensely stressful for our pupils, but is completely unrelated to skills they need in the modern workplace.

Unsurprisingly, those cramming sessions do not aid long-term knowledge retention: spaced out learning improves knowledge retention by up to 200 per cent over short-burst cramming sessions. We’ve been using the traditional exam system for so long we fail to recognise just how absurd it really is to determine a child’s life chances based on a two-hour ordeal in a converted sports hall.

Exams do serve an important bureaucratic process, helping Ofsted to rank schools, and universities to sort between students. Yet many teachers I know understand that glorified memory tests are ultimately useless for preparing our students for their future; no wonder one in 12 teachers left the profession last year.

In the past, exams were vital in that they allowed schools to assess pupils at scale. However with the technology available today (like virtual AI-teacher avatars and remote learning that truly mimics classroom dynamics in a way that Zoom can’t), we have the opportunity to assess the much-needed skills of collaboration, teamwork and independent research in an efficient and more accurate way. This may make it harder to package students into neat little categories – but it will also stop them defining themselves that way.

I believe that the best person to assess a pupil is their teacher, looking at a broad range of skills that a child has exhibited over the course of a year, and not just a couple of hours.

Perhaps the most unfair thing about traditional exams is how easily the system is gamed by the privileged. In 2015 (not an exceptional year) 13 per cent of exams at independent schools were re-marked (compared with the eight per cent in the state sector) with the vast majority of grades improving.

There is also evidence that private schools fared better with this year’s so-called A-level “grade inflation”, seeing a 12.1 percentage point increase in A*s on 2020, compared to a 3.9 per cent increase at state comprehensives, a 5.8 increase at state grammar schools and a 1.9 rise at state sixth form colleges.

This is yet another example of how the systems we put in place are consistently leveraged by privileged pupils – and a reminder that the teacher-led assessments of the future can too be fairer.

However, with teacher assessments, we are now moving towards a level playing field where everyone has a chance to demonstrate their learning. To ensure that teacher assessed grades really are fair, there can be checks and balances in place to assess the evidence behind grades and to make sure there is standardisation across different schools. This is easy to implement – and will be much more rooted in reality than the traditional approach.

The last 18 months have been some of the most difficult times in living memory for both teachers and pupils. We owe it to them to at least learn from the experience and trust pupils to learn, and teachers to assess – not memory tests, not Kafkaesque exam boards, and definitely not algorithms.


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