A proposal for high-quality, moderated internal assessment

Assessment and exams: 2021 and beyond

John Dunford Former secondary head and general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, National Pupil Premium Champion and chair of the CIEA and Whole Education

My 10-point plan for covid-affected exams in 2021, published in September 2020, called for a fair system, with high-quality moderated internal assessment complementing external exams, or substituting for them if they are not able to take place. Trained ‘Lead Assessors’ would oversee grading in their own institutions and moderate grading in other centres.

The calls for change are growing

The debate has now moved on, with calls from vice-chancellors to rely on moderated internal assessment instead of A-levels in 2021, and Lord Baker and others advocating the end of GCSEs.

The first of these focuses exclusively on 18-year olds in 2021; the second is a plea for a more appropriate progress check for 16-year olds.

Fairness is paramount

Delaying exams in 2021 for a few weeks is not a solution to the uneven and uncertain effects that covid will have on 16- and 18-year olds over the two academic years of their courses. If anything, it will give added advantage to the already advantaged and increase further their achievement gap with less fortunate learners.

In all these scenarios – delayed exams, scrapping A-levels or abolishing GCSEs – the need for high-quality centre-based assessment is paramount, if learners are to be able to give a fair account of their knowledge and skills.

Fairness is at the core of this – fairness between learners, between institutions and between different academic cohorts.

Fair assessment is valid and reliable, assessing the work of learners across the full range of their courses. External exams alone do not do this in any year – and certainly will not in 2021.

Teacher professionalism is undervalued

Whether grades rely solely on internal assessment or on a combination of internal and external, centre-generated grades need to be externally moderated by experts with a full grasp of the assessment process and its standards.

The total reliance in recent years on external testing and exams at 11, 16 and 18 arises from a lack of trust in teacher judgements, which represents a deplorably negative view by government ministers of the professionalism of teachers.

If grading had been based on a combination of external and internal assessment, the system would have been better equipped for the 2020 emergency.

The role of Lead Assessors in ensuring reliability

Now is surely the right time for the profession to take the initiative and create a system for 2021 (and beyond) that produces internal assessments that rigorously match external standards. These assessments can then be used as reliable indicators of achievement, whether or not external exams are able to take place.

My 10-point plan proposed that key senior staff – the Lead Assessors – should be trained to conduct internal assessment at external standards, with at least one Lead Assessor per exam centre. These assessments should be made across the full syllabus of knowledge and skills in each subject, thus increasing their validity.

The Lead Assessors would oversee grading in their own institutions and moderate grading in other centres.

Assessing the assessors

In order to provide public and professional confidence across the education system, Lead Assessors could be trained and accredited by the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors (CIEA), with most going on to be Chartered Educational Assessors, so that every school and college can demonstrate publicly its commitment to quality-assured, valid and reliable assessment.

The CIEA and the Chartered College of Teaching has written to the secretary of state and Ofqual putting forward these proposals.

Finally, because accountability is so intricately tied up with test and exam results, it will be important to avoid undue accountability pressures on the staff producing internal assessments, so there should be no performance tables in 2021. This will provide a space to devise a different accountability system for the future. More imaginative assessment is possible. See here for a wide variety of alternative approaches being showcased by the Rethinking Assessment group.

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