Less focus on end-of-year exams could be fairer way to assess students, former Ofqual chief executive says

Isabel Nisbet says it would make sense to have ‘broader idea’ of student’s ability

Zoe Tidman
Wednesday 18 August 2021 17:32 BST
<p>Isabel Nisbet questioned whether it was still ‘valid’ to test a student’s ability by making them sit alone at a desk ‘writing with a pen for three hours’ </p>

Isabel Nisbet questioned whether it was still ‘valid’ to test a student’s ability by making them sit alone at a desk ‘writing with a pen for three hours’

Moving away from a focus on end-of-year exams could be a fairer way to assess students, the founding chief executive of England’s exam regulator has suggested.

Isabel Nisbet told The Independent the “snapshot” given by end-of-course exams is not necessarily an “informed” and “sensitive judgement” of a pupil’s ability.

It comes as formal exams were cancelled for two years in a row due to the Covid pandemic and subsequent disruption caused to education.

Earlier this month, A-level and GCSE students received grades based on assessments by teachers, who were allowed to use a range of evidence including mock exams, classwork and homework to arrive at grades.

The proportion of students who received top grades reached a record high this year.

Ms Nisbet, who was the first chief executive of England’s exam regulator, said she hoped grading would move towards using a “portfolio” of evidence, as happened this year, in future years.

“We are just beginning to think – all of this discussion about the new normal – are we just going to go back with a sigh of relief to good old exams again? I think it is an open question,” she said.

Speaking about the current system which relies heavily on exams, Ms Nisbet said: “If you wanted a system with a snapshot taken at the end of the course – say I am a student – of my knowledge and skills against a tightly defined curriculum, I think it is as fair as they come.”

But, given the depth A-levels go into, she asked: “Is that the best way to assess my knowledge, skills and understanding in this whole subject area?”

Ms Nisbet said: “Would a fairer way be to have a range of sources of evidence, including modules, or project work, or practical work, which some subjects do?”

She added: “On the whole, my personal answer to that is: yes, it would be fairer to have a wider range.”

Ahead of this year’s results day, Simon Lebus, the interim head of Ofqual, said having teachers grade their pupils on work throughout the year would give a more “holistic judgement” than the “snapshot” provided by an exam.

Ofqual later clarified his comments by saying he meant teacher-assessed grades would be more accurate than exams this year due to the pandemic preventing many pupils from covering whole curriculums.

The exam regulator believes exams are the fairest method of assessment in a normal year.

Over the course of the pandemic, ministers and government have insisted that exams are the “fairest” way to assess students’ performances in normal years.

But Ms Nisbet, who led Ofqual between 2007 and 2011, said it was not an “either/or” situation.

While she said exams do have an important role to play, calling them “reliable, scrupulously fair in the sense of treating all candidates the same”, Ms Nisbet added: “One exam taken at the end of a course doesn’t need to be the sole source of evidence for awarding a grade.”

She said it makes sense to have a “broader idea” of a student’s ability rather than the one shown through solely the lens of exams.

Ms Nisbet also questioned whether it was still “valid” to test a student’s ability by making them sit alone at a desk “writing with a pen for three hours”.

“I do think that it is time to take the plunge and provide for high-stakes assessments to be taken using a computer,” she said.

A survey this year found most schools planned to put the greatest emphasis on exam-style papers when coming up with teacher assessments for GCSE and A-level exams, while still using other evidence, which could include work done at home or school.

Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said this month the government hoped to “be moving to a system where we are able to move into the more normal pattern of examinations from next year”.

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