Exams and assessments in England are broken beyond repair, independent commission warns

A commission comprising academics and representatives of teachers, students and businesses has set out the case for change in an interim report on assessments in schools and colleges in England

The Independent Assessment Commission – comprising professors, teacher and student union reps and the Confederation of British Industry – has published an interim report following its launch this June, describing assessments in England as “not fit for the future”.

The commission chair Prof Louise Hayward – a professor of educational assessment and innovation at the University of Glasgow – said exams should be “one part of a wider assessment system for everyone, which would measure many skills and competencies”.

Hayward said the commission had heard from teachers and students whose mental health had been blighted by what she termed “cliff-edge exams”. The system must also “act as a measure” of abilities “beyond just academic skills”, she summarised.

The commission launched in June, pledging to “shake-up the failing exam system and ‘start a national conversation’ to transform the way the country’s young people are assessed”.

The report warns the pandemic has ruptured the view many had of assessments and qualifications – adding it was “timely” to ask what is needed “to serve the future needs of all young people”. GCSEs, A-levels and BTecs show how a student performed relative to their peers, unlike many vocational qualifications that reflect a consistent set of accomplishments and competencies; this, along with low grade reliability, the commission warned, should change.

The commissioners, drawn from many disciplines and backgrounds, want collaboration between employers, parents, policymakers, teachers, researchers and students to address why “too many young people leave schools and colleges without the qualifications, knowledge, skills” they need. More holistic assessments and support for vocational and practical subjects could remedy this problem, they added.

The CBI warned that employers feel qualifications neither reflect candidates’ skills and abilities nor develop the competencies most needed.

The current system is taking a terrible toll on too many young people and teachers. This cannot be right
– Prof Louise Hayward, Independent Assessment Commission

Hayward is joined by Prof Dame Alison Peacock, chief executive of the Chartered College of Teaching, Prof Vini Lander from the Carnegie School of Education, Prof Dominic Wyse from UCL, and Prof Jo-Anne Baird, director of the department of education at the University of Oxford. The commission also comprises representatives from the National Union of Students, the CBI, the National Education Union, Parentkind and the Edge Foundation.

Said Hayward: “Exams should be just one part of a wider assessment system for everyone, which would measure many skills and competencies. This would move the focus beyond just academic skills and would provide all young people with recognition that acts as a measure and recognition that they can use to help move them forward in the next stage of their life journey.”

“Ending cliff edge exams will also help the well-being of young people, their parents and teachers. We have heard from young people and teachers during the research and found that the current system is taking a terrible toll on too many young people and teachers.

“This cannot be right; a system making our children unwell is a system that has to change. This has to change. The time to start the process of change is now.”

Other senior HE representatives have also called for drastic reform to exams and assessments. During a discussion about a post-qualification admissions (PQA) system in March, Prof David Eastwood, the outgoing vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, expressed support for a UK standardised admissions test (SAT) to university and a new diploma system to replace A-levels and level three qualifications.

He said separating university admissions from level three qualifications would make the application process fairer and allow for a broader education with more creative assessment procedures in key stage five.

Read more: Government to slash number of level 3 qualifications

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