The A-Level results fiasco demonstrates that there is no clear alternative to exam-based assessment for school pupils. Hundreds of thousands of students saw their calculated grades drop from predictions with many schools in disadvantaged areas being disproportionately penalised by Ofqual’s algorithm. Even the U-turn, which changed results to centre assessed grades, was marred by concerns of grade inflation. Some schools took a cautious approach to predicted grades, yet did not escape the algorithm’s downgrading, resulting in even greater disparities. There is no perfect solution, but to avoid another disaster next year, open-book exams should be considered.
At school, I preferred sitting exams rather than writing coursework as it made me work harder and the process of revision helped me learn. The heavier use of coursework and exam cancellation has been suggested by some as one of the solutions in a Covid world. However, issues over reliability of coursework have been raised in the past, with stories of some schools helping their students with their coursework more than others.
Recently Scotland has cancelled its National 5 exams, replacing them with assessed grades. I believe this decision was premature – there are over seven months until exam season starts. Even if we’re not much closer to normality, exam halls are an easy environment in which to implement Covid-safe measures. Desks are spread out allowing for social distancing, everyone faces the same way, and students are led out row by row all which reduce risks of transmission. Further measures such as sanitising hands, temperature checks, and the wearing of masks can easily be taken.
Exam halls are an easy environment in which to implement Covid-safe measures
We must also consider the many students who lost their summer term teaching time. It is essential that there are reductions in the amount of content students need to learn. And, to ensure fairness, more options should be added for students on exam papers, since schools cover different topics at different points in the year. This would allow students to have a greater range of questions, in the same way that departments at Warwick dealt with lost time from strikes and the pandemic in 2019/20. This way, all students will be able to provide an answer, irrespective of the areas of the course they managed to cover.
Having a traditional exam-based method would not be suitable for this year. Instead, they should be open-book, to takes the pressure off students who have missed teaching. Open-book exams address coursework-related problems, and allow for fair treatment of all students. Only once the pandemic has passed should school exams return to the traditional format. As there currently seems to be no viable alternative to exam-based assessment this would be good compromise, but the government must act quickly to explain their plans and backup options.
The exams should be available in an online format to students who may have to self-isolate at the time
Given the government should plan for the worst-case scenario, the exams should be available in an online format to students who have to self-isolate at the time. As the current plan seems to be for the 2021 exam season to go ahead as planned, it is essential that there is a viable back-up option to avoid last summer’s disaster. If there was another national lockdown, for example, a suitable back up option would involve moving all the exams online, and preparations for this possibility should be made months in advance.
It is crucial that disadvantaged pupils are not left behind. If exams were moved online, provisions should be made to allow students with limited internet access to take exams at an assessment centre. Online open-book exams should be considered if the national situation deteriorates, but this should be treated as the worst-case scenario. Open-book exams are the way forward while Covid is still with us.