It’s time to learn from promising practices and move beyond this year’s exams fiasco

We should try out some of the assessment practices in use in England and across the globe

Bill Lucas Professor of Learning, University of Winchester

This year’s GCSE shambles has given algorithms a bad name. A concept whose advantages we have come to find useful when Twitter or Spotify predicts who we might like to follow or what we’d like to listen to lacked the one thing that all computer formulae need, common sense. It missed out on what Aristotle called φρόνησῐς (phronesis) or ‘practical wisdom’. Or we might prefer to call it ‘teacher judgment’.

Try my new Assessment Practices test.

Q.1 In England will GCSEs in 2021:

a) be abandoned
b) be held later in July or even August
c) have much reduced content
d) be switched to open text
e) rely on coursework only
f) be replaced by some other means of assessing student progress
g) something else or a mixture of (a) – (f)?

Q.2 Given everything else that is going for young people during Covid-19, should we:

a) continue only to assess the knowledge represented by individual disciplines
b) focus on student well-being
c) develop rigorous approaches to tracking the development of young people’s character?

Q.3 While we wait to find out what will happen to GCSEs in 2021 should headteachers:

a) carry on as if nothing had happened
b) ensure that year 11 students sit controlled tests every fortnight for them to use
c) decide not to enter students for any GCSEs
d) scan the world for promising practices and try one of these out in their school?

How did you get on? 

The (my) correct answers are 1 (g), 2 (c) though 2(b) is plausible, and 3(d).

How schools can take the initiative this year

As part of the Rethinking Assessment movement we are actively trying to encourage schools to look at some of the many practical alternatives from around the world. Here are three practical ideas while we wait to see how things pan out for GCSEs.

1. Create your own Character Scorecard

You may well have your own approach to explicitly developing young people’s character. In which case this year is a perfect opportunity to try some of these assessment tools. You could start with the VIA Institute on Character Inventory of Strengths.

Using the VIA questionnaire you could track the development of whichever of the 24 strengths seem most appropriate to you at the beginning and end of each term using this data to help you reflect on the degree to which your activities are developing the character attributes you are seeking.

The KIPP Character Scorecard which focuses on zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity, is another good repository of resources developed with Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab.

2. Adapt the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) for use in key stage 4

The EPQ, equivalent to 50% of an A level, is an opportunity for students to undertake an extended project with guidance and support from staff. Its assessment takes the form of, for example, a musical or drama composition, a report or artefact backed up with paperwork or an extended piece of writing. The Warriner School among others has already adapted this kind of approach to key stage 3, so we have a proof of concept at 11-14 and at 16-18. Now all you need to do is develop something to plug this gap. You could look at the National Baccalaureate for England’s focus on three elements at key stage 5 – core learning + personal project + personal development programme  and adapt this to key stage 4.

3. Go digital

Think scouts/guides + badges + tech with a dash of Duke of Edinburgh award thrown in.

Whether you are seeking to capture ‘academic’ or ‘character’ strengths you may want to find out about digital badges. These are ways of ‘micro-credentialing’ aspects of any capability or competence. The Open Badges movement has come a long way in making such assessments reliable and useful.

You may want to go further and develop digital portfolios for your students. Many school online systems have the functionality for each student to develop and curate their own e-portfolio. 

Or you could dip your toe into the world of comparative Judgment. Comparative judgement assumes that people are better at making comparisons between pieces of work than at making absolute judgements about quality. No More Marking has developed software for teachers.

From algorithms to practical research

But let’s not just wait and see what others will decide about GCSEs. We can start experimenting now to see how best we can celebrate the strengths of every child you teach in year 12 this year.

And remember whatever we do, our practical wisdom will mean that it is likely  to be twenty times better than this year’s flawed algorithm!

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