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Put Your Pens Down – Is An Examination System Devised In The 19th Century Really The Best We Can Do?

  • Put Your Pens Down – Is An Examination System Devised In The 19th Century Really The Best We Can Do?

Are exams really the most effective way of assessing young people’s ability? OCR’s Charlotte Bosworth doesn’t think so…

In recent years we’ve become used to seeing criticisms of the UK’s exams system over the summer from all across the media. At that time of year, you can expect to see everyone from big employers to teachers discuss the same perennial concern – our exams system has changed very little in over a century, yet the modern world requires a more accurate, fair and robust means by which learners can demonstrate their abilities.

The business world in particular continues to level the criticism that exams are “Pointless regurgitation”, and that the private sector has to fill skills gaps at its own expense because people are leaving schools without demonstrable work-ready skills.

It is not fair to suggest, meanwhile, that secondary teachers are just complaining about the exams process because of workload and stress issues. The reason most of them got into the profession in the first place is because they care about the future prospects of their learners – and this is the real reason why a growing chorus of teachers are starting to ask, ‘Surely there must be a better way?

Body of evidence

Not only is this answer yes – better assessment methods are indeed possible – but they are already proving so practice, all over the vocational world. The question is therefore, ‘How might the secondary sector adopt some of these ideas, in order to move from the testing of knowledge to a more modern way of testing the application of knowledge in a relevant context?

Everywhere outside the traditional academic route, in professions ranging from accounting to medicine and from IT to construction, career-shaping decisions are based on scientifically and technologically advanced methods of assessment. These assessments give a more statistically reliable indicator of attainment, and allow the individual to demonstrate the best of themselves without the stress and unfamiliarity of the pen-and-paper, exam hall environment.

The catch-all industry term for this type of measurement is Evidence-Based Assessment (EBA). The critical difference is that the old-fashioned exam is purely summative, whereas modern EBA is by nature formative – that is, it allows students to learn, gather evidence, reflect and improve as they go along, rather than have to place all their hopes on a compressed period of intensive testing at the end.

Plagiarism concerns are addressed by the fact that technology now allows for such a broad body of evidence to be built that it is much harder to fake.

A more intuitive approach

At OCR, we are vocal advocates for the adoption of such methods in centres, because we are uniquely positioned to have insight into both sides of education. In schools, we deliver A-levels and GCSEs in over 40 subjects, while in the vocational space we are already delivering a range of vocational qualifications, including Cambridge Technical, at different levels and in a range of different disciplines, including sport, business enterprise and engineering, using a digital evidence-based assessment system rather than summative exams.

In partnership with education technology specialist Digital Assess, we are using EBA to support Cambridge Technicals, providing each learner with the ability to create a portfolio of evidence that can be teacher-reviewed at every stage of the course, and which will send them into either the employer selection process or the university admissions process with a far more meaningful and reliable demonstration of their learning journey – and greater awareness of how to apply the knowledge they have gained – compared to a purely written exam.

Historically, managing student coursework involved centres gathering and marking vast quantities of papers, before sending them to OCR via post or courier for verification. That meant lots of opportunities for work to get missed or go astray in the post, costing the centres time and money.

We wanted to take a different, more intuitive approach and fully embrace the advantages of modelling the process digitally to capture and measure demonstrable skills – both soft and higher order skills – and track progression and feedback. Unlike a simple ‘tick box’ portfolio, the system is robust and flexible enough to capture the most appropriate content to evidence every relevant requirement, be it in video, audio, copy or other format, and can be peer-reviewed as well as assessor-reviewed.

We began this project back in 2004, initially focusing on computer literacy and later on media and creative qualifications. Since then we have been using the same system for an increasing number of Cambridge Technicals spanning a diverse range of subjects. To date, it’s been used in over 600 centres by some 140,000 candidates, with more than 50,000 unique qualification submissions.

Time for change

Having seen the demonstrable success of evidence-based assessment in the vocational world, what does this mean for schools, sixth forms or FE colleges?

As well as demonstrating that a move from summative to formative assessment is possible, it also represents that aforementioned critical shift from assessment of knowledge to assessment of the application of knowledge. Moreover, it provides opportunities for logistical savings, in terms of the time and cost that would otherwise be spent collating paper portfolios and sending them to OCR through the post. In time, we hope that this digital approach will lead to a quicker turnaround in results, as well as savings in candidate qualification fees.

But there is still the challenge of how to bridge the gap between what is required in the world of work and what is tested in schools and colleges; how do we focus on the skills and attributes that employers really want, and apply that to the education system?

It is clear that schools want change as much as employers do. Teachers would generally prefer to be freed up to support learning, rather than having to ‘teach to the test’ and be cajoled into marking papers.

The main barrier is therefore more the scale of reforms required. Dan Sandhu, the chief executive of Digital Assess, has already said that UK schools examinations need nothing less than a complete overhaul – a cultural shift – before the situation can be improved for learners, teachers and employers alike. He is right – and this is achievable.

The process of capturing evidence needs to be introduced right from the beginning of secondary school. This would give the system at least four years to bed in. Ofsted can act as a quality assurance body to ensure that the evidence is being captured correctly, that teachers are intervening at the right moments and that schools are addressing common skills gaps in a systematic, coherent manner (such as improving teacher CPD) – rather than leaving employers to fill the gaps by implementing their own tests.

For this change to happen, the government doesn’t even necessarily need to pump ever more investment into education – just make better use of the existing investment.

If the next generation are to contribute to our 21st century economy, their destinies should not depend on a 19th century examination.

Charlotte Bosworth is director of skills and employment at OCR; for more information, follow @ocrexams

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