School assessment experience is failing to prepare students for higher education

New research on mixed method assessment in higher education further makes the case for change in schools to ensure young people are prepared for effective transitions

New research commissioned by the King Alfred School Society and Rethinking Assessment indicates that the current assessment system in schools is letting down prospective university students.

A Review of Assessment Methods in Higher Education found that universities are making ever more use of multimodal assessment, with schools failing to keep pace because they are forced to build too much of their curriculum and pedagogy around end-of-year, timed exams.

The review – a comprehensive and systematic data collection exercise – analysed 240 undergraduate degrees representing 12 of the most popular subjects and subject categories, finding that:

  • Not one undergraduate degree course used only exams as a means to assess students.
  • So called ‘non-traditional’ methods of assessment (such as group work, creative projects, and industry-related assignments) were very common across subjects and universities.
  • Across degree subjects, universities assessed students on a wide range of subject-specific, practical, and technical skills.

This approach in Higher Education is in part a response to the challenges and opportunities of AI but also reflects a commitment to holistic skills development within domains. It is not a coincidence that students who undertake the Extended Project Qualifications, for example, perform better at undergraduate level, nor that universities are increasingly explicit about the desirability of having one. There is a much greater match between the work undertaken in an EPQ and the kind of work assessed at HE level.

In response, this paper argues that schools need to better prepare our young people for the rich variety of tasks on which their degrees will be judged, and which more accurately reflect the tasks graduates will be faced with in the workplace. Higher education institutions are adapting to our changing world by ensuring their assessment methods relate to the tasks young people will go on to face in their working lives.

This paper furthers the evidence of the need for changes to assessment at school level. Calls to end the out-of-date, overbearing and misguided mono-focus on exams have only been growing, and with a General Election looming, whoever forms the next government should see this as an area in which they can make meaningful and immediate changes in the interest of children and young people all over the country. We should be making assessment more relevant and inclusive for all young people to better prepare them both for success in higher education, and in the world of work beyond.

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