Students are telling us the assessment system needs to change

By listening to large numbers of students during Covid, we are gaining fresh insights into assessment reform

Phil Avery Director of Education, Bohunt Education Trust

The Comrades ultramarathon in South Africa might just be the greatest running race on Earth. It’s a heady mix of history, hills and hysterical crowds over 89km. 12 hours after the starting gun fires, the finish is closed by security guards. Brutally, if you aren’t over the line you don’t complete the race. As the critical moment approaches runners collapse, cry and make difficult decisions about whether to help others and risk their own finish. It’s harsh, sometimes inspiring viewing. But the race we make our children run in secondary schools is in some ways even more devilish.

Our students dash through content towards the misty finish line of GCSEs. Unlike the Comrades our exam regime is not criterion referenced. Pass marks are decided after the event, and our version of closing the finish line means a third of our students must fail; it’s not only about performance, but the order in which you cross the line. Not knowing when the finish line will close fundamentally changes the nature of the race. The Comrades race sets clear standards, high expectations, requires excellence, encourages collaboration and is a wonderful day out; our exam system fosters individualism, competition, anxiety and, for many, disengagement.

The impact of Covid

Into this year’s perverse exams race has been thrown the additional uphill (learning) curve of COVID-19. Its impact has laid bare an exam system that doesn’t value the whole child and leaves many without hope. By listening to thousands of students we have gained fresh insights. It has also offered glimpses of a way forward. Within Bohunt Education Trust – a collaborative family of seven secondary schools – we have a significant programme of research and evaluation, working alongside external partners such as ImpactEd, UCL and Apple, so we’ve had a clear view of impacts. 

10% of our students dropped out of the ‘race’ the moment lockdown started and, despite repeated exhortations to re-join, few did.

Our online learning checks showed that those who crossed the start line behind others, disproportionately the already disadvantaged, fell further and further behind. Overall, students’ wellbeing increased during lockdown, possibly due to the removal of stressors such as exams, but not for disadvantaged and SEND students; students who got outside more reported higher levels of wellbeing; our disadvantaged students got outside less.

An exam-free lockdown saw a suite of high quality resources made available from a wide range of partners – scientists, MPs and EdTech companies. With the shackles of the sprint to exams lifted we made the most of these. We used some of the freed up time to build a ‘nature-noticing’ app, which has been used across 15 countries so far. Given space from the assessment treadmill, teachers got creative; students reacted superbly, creating beautiful, thoughtful work, engaging in big, difficult issues, and enacting their newly formed perspectives. Our exam-free programme culminated in inspiring lessons by the Ineos team on Eliud Kipchoge’s 1.59 marathon … a fitting link to the metaphor of this piece.

But now we’re back where we were, albeit with even less certainty about the assessment race than usual. We know that 10% of students are entirely switched off by their education and a further 25% are motivated wholly by extrinsic factors. We need to change our offer and our methods of assessment at 16. Through revitalised, localised curriculum and a variety of assessment methods we must encourage critical thinking, a broad set of competencies, and incredible work for its own sake. What we value in young people is what we should assess; we need to continue to value knowledge, but we also need to show that we value the whole child, all children and learning over performance.

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