What is the way forward for Maths exams 2021?

A personal viewpoint from Cathy Smith, Mathematics Education lead at the Open University.

Ofqual and DfE are currently consulting about their proposals for giving students GCSE, AS and A level grades this summer, a change of plan from the problematic awards from 2020. The full consultation document is here  and the way to give your response is here.  These are my thoughts about what they are proposing, distilled into six points.

  1. The purposes of assessment.

The consultation document offers this about the meaning and purpose of grades: “Qualification grades indicate what a person who holds the qualification knows, understands and can do, and to what standard. That is their purpose. People who use qualifications, for example to make selection decisions, need to be able to rely on the grades. For qualification grades to be meaningful, a person who holds a qualification with a higher grade must have shown that their knowledge, understanding or skills are at a higher standard than a person who holds a qualification with a lower grade.”

One trouble with this is that it mixes up the certification and selection purposes of examinations. Grades are meant to certify what someone ‘knows, understands and can do’ so that employers and universities can be reasonably sure that someone with a grade 4 can, for example, increase a quantity by 20%.   This year, students have had unusual and disrupted learning for 10 months.  Most of them will simply not know as much as a pre-2020 student.  Through no fault of their own, this cohort would – overall –  probably get a worse grade distribution if they sat normal GCSEs, and within that the groups  whose education has been most disrupted would have the worst drop.

The government has already conceded that post-2020 result do not mean the same as pre-2020 results. This is why Ofqual is talking about reducing curriculum content or allowing teachers to match tests only to what has been taught. The problem here is that rather than recover students’ knowledge, it risks being narrowed further.

This leaves the selection purpose: a person with a higher grade should have shown that they have ‘a higher standard’ than someone with a lower grade.  The 2020 outcry over grades shows how much people care about children’s futures resting on comparing grades.  To be fair, this has to hold within a school, across schools, and across any different ways of assessing that standard, or opinions of how to interpret it.  It is no small task to achieve this. Existing GCSE and A-level assessments are not perfect, and that is not for want of effort.

  1. Need for assessment

It is worth asking why it is necessary to have this national ranking. Certainly, grades for A-levels, BTECs or other final qualifications allow admissions offices to make quick impersonal decisions where students are applying to university or apprenticeship schemes with limited intake numbers. For GCSE, where all students must now continue in education, most in their current school, there is no longer a strong justification.  16-year olds have years of assessment history behind them that can inform their choice of subjects and courses.  There are many, many countries around the world that manage without the equivalent of GCSE. Although it is not in the scope of the 2021 consultation, there should be a future discussion about the time and money devoted to a wide-scale assessment.

  1. Exams or exam-papers

The proposal (read it in full yourself here) is to replace national exams with new ‘smaller’ papers, covering just a few topics, that will be written by the exam boards in the next couple of months. Teachers will not see the questions but will choose a few of these papers for their students to sit, then mark the papers themselves (to provided mark-schemes) and be responsible for how they turn these marks into grades.  (There is no detail about how this will happen.) Maths is actually simpler here, as teachers don’t have to consider how to include practical or oral work in the final grade.  The proposal suggests that teachers might also write their own papers, which will have to be vetted by the exam boards. It also suggests that only papers taken in a particular time period (e.g. one week in June) will count. This in effect throws away the assessment records that teachers have been carefully building up, to be replaced by new ones.  Students who have been sitting a test every fortnight since September will be overjoyed!.

  1. The danger of the new

Perhaps this proposal seems a reasonable compromise. Certainly, given time, teachers could develop skills to make fair judgements between students in their own schools and between other schools. In the late 1980s teachers themselves wrote the exam papers for Mode 3 GCSEs that were accredited by the then-version of Ofqual; this century they moderated GCSE grades and national curriculum levels across schools. But they have not done this for over ten years. Only a few teachers (in some schools) are also examiners. Writing high-stakes exam questions is a skill that examiners have and teachers have not needed.  So is setting grade boundaries. With new, untrialled exam papers, even the exam boards would find it hard to predict how students will perform, let alone when teaching has been disrupted by a pandemic. Inventing a new system simply means we cannot tell in advance how the unfairnesses will appear, not that there won’t be any.

  1. Workload

It is hard to overstate this: teachers and school leaders are being asked to take on the job and the responsibilities of exam designers, markers and checkers, to run the whole appeals process and have the paperwork to defend themselves against any criticism from students, parents or Ofqual itself. This is on top of teaching full classes, running testing and looking  out for children’s wellbeing.

  1. Who loses?

It is hard to see any winners in the situation. Covid is not fair.  Students aren’t getting the education they need, and what they are losing is as much about social skills, about being able to work alongside each other, as it is about what they know.   But when you introduce a new system,  and it goes wrong or it can be exploited or it depends on teachers’ resources and goodwill rather than their actual job, it is always the children who are already disadvantaged that lose out most.

It seems wrong to criticise the proposals without suggesting an alternative, but no one person should be pushing their suggestion.  I would add some different questions to the consultation: What do we think would happen if there were no GCSE grades at all this year? If students were advised by their teachers about which year 12 courses they should take? If all 16-year olds were offered an opportunity to sit GCSE Maths and English for free sometime in the next three years?

Do respond to the consultation –  here.

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