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School exams: How might pupils be assessed in future?

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In 2020 and 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic meant pupils could not sit formal exams and alternative assessment arrangements were made. While this caused disruption and uncertainty in the lives young people, it was also a chance to reflect on the examination system in place in Scotland since 1888.

This blog looks at the options around future assessment and highlights the views of around 60 young people who recently participated in scrutiny sessions by the Education, Children and Young People Committee.

Assessment in Scotland and elsewhere

In August, the OECD published a report on assessment in Scotland as part of its wider work on Curriculum for Excellence (CfE). This report, by Professor Gordon Stobart of the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment, compares Scotland’s approach to assessment with systems used elsewhere.

In Scottish schools, pupils complete written exams and assessments using pen and paper; Professor Stobart’s report highlighted some countries have introduced new methods of assessment. In Norway some exams are computer-based, and pupils have access to online resources. Pilot studies in New Zealand, Israel, Norway and Finland also found online and on-screen assessments could be implemented, despite some logistical challenges. Methods implemented elsewhere include practical assessments, the use of online portfolios and a move away from centralised exams toward school-based assessment.

Options set out by Professor Stobart for Scotland to explore include:

  • Removal of National 5 examinations in S4 and move toward a school graduation certificate or diploma.
  • A qualifications system based on a combination of continuous assessment, school-based exams and external exams.
  • Better alignment of assessment with CfE through broadening forms of assessment, including interactive approaches such as computer-based exams, online portfolios and practical assessments.
  • Increasing the role of teachers in school-based assessment and moving away from centralised moderation.
  • Ensuring students are a key stakeholder in development of assessments; and further developing the role of vocational qualifications.

These options will be considered as part of the Scottish Government’s wider work to reform CfE and the recently launched consultation on the replacement of the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) and reform of Education Scotland.

Young people’s views on assessment

Scotland’s move toward full incorporation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) will give the views of young people new significance. Following the Supreme Court’s judgement that the UNCRC Incorporation (Scotland) Bill goes beyond the powers of the Scottish Parliament, the legislation can’t yet be enacted. The Scottish Government has restated its commitment to incorporation but the timescale and process is not yet clear. Once incorporated, all public bodies should give young people opportunities to have a say on issues impacting their lives. As assessment has a significant impact on teenagers in the senior phase of secondary school, finding out their views should be an important step in the change process.

During its recent scrutiny of assessment arrangements during the pandemic, the Education, Children and Young People (ECYP) Committee spoke to young people about their experiences of assessment and how the system might look in future. During nine informal evidence sessions in September, the Committee heard from around 60 young people from:

  • Buchanan High School for pupils with additional support needs, Coatbridge
  • St Joseph’s College, Dumfries
  • Inverness Royal Academy, Inverness
  • Shawlands Academy, Glasgow
  • young people from the Scottish Youth Parliament
  • Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland (CYPCS) Young Advisers
  • young people in a session facilitated by Children in Scotland (CiS)
  • care experienced young people facilitated by Who Cares? Scotland
  • and young carers facilitated by Carers’ Trust Scotland.

In general, young people taking part in the sessions wanted to see a move away from end of year exams. They viewed exams as high pressure and high stakes, with final grade awards based on on-the-day performance rather than recognising effort throughout the year. Recognition of willingness to learn, behaviour, and performance in ongoing assessment and practical work were all elements pupils wanted to see given greater consideration in future.

Young people supported a system of continuous assessment, including practical work and presentations as well as written tests. While most were critical of the Alternative Certification Model process of continuous assessment used in 2021, this was due to a high volume of assessments over a short space of time. They could see benefits to a process of continuous assessment spaced throughout the year. There was support for this in almost all the groups, and young carers said it took the pressure off juggling study with caring responsibilities.

Many of the young people wanted to see a system that can recognise challenges faced by pupils. For example, the care experienced young people said challenges such as moving care placement during prelims and exams should be considered and the assessment system should not add additional stress to their lives.

Meaningful involvement in the design of the new assessment system was also called for. Young people also wanted to be routinely consulted by Parliamentary Committees in the same way as other stakeholder groups, such as teachers; the newly announced Children and Young People’s Education Council was seen as a potential means of doing this.

Views within the education sector

There is support for development of continuous assessment amongst teaching unions and education stakeholders. The Association of Directors of Education (ADES) told the ECYP Committee while there might still be exams in future, there could be a shift in balance toward continuous assessment. The Scottish Secondary Teachers’ Association (SSTA) said there were good elements of the 2021 ACM, and it was the application that had caused problems in 2021. The Educational Institute of Scotland (EIS) supports a move away from “high-stakes do-or-die” assessments. The EIS and fellow teaching union NASUWT also want to see a future assessment system place more trust in teachers’ professional judgement.

What lies ahead?

While this year’s assessments were delivered under difficult circumstances due to the winter lockdown at the start of the year, they did show the potential for new ways of working. In addition, many of the assessment methods young people expressed support for are being used elsewhere and were outlined as options by the OECD. While formal exams may remain part of the overall system for the time being, they may soon be joined by other forms of assessment. Meaningful involvement of young people, along with teachers, schools and education organisations in decision making around a new system will be a key part of making progress.

The Scottish Government has said that it will “work with partners to develop the future approach to assessment beyond 2022”, taking into account the OECD’s paper on assessments in schools.  Further details, including on how young people will be involved in this work, are still to be set out.

By Lynne Currie, Senior Researcher (Education)

Blog image “final exam” by dcJohn is licensed under CC BY 2.0