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What does an exam board do when there are no exams?
  • Exams

… and can grades this year be meaningful, fair and valid?

This blog is from one of COBIS' Supporting Associates

Written by Jamie Kirkaldy, Head of Teaching and Learning Support at OxfordAQA

The role of the exam board hasn’t fundamentally changed with the cancellation of exams: we are still here to ensure that the grades awarded to students are fair, valid and comparable – the only difference is how.

Why do we have exams in the first place?

Exams exist so that we can have a universal benchmark of assessing what students know and what they can do.

Exams provide an equal opportunity, on a fair footing, for students across the world to demonstrate their knowledge and skills – and gain independent recognition of what they have learned, which they can use as evidence when applying to universities or jobs.

So…what happens when the test is taken away?

Students still need the knowledge and the skills covered in the curriculum: they will take them forward to the next stage in their academic journey (GCSEs to A-level, A-level to university) and also into adult life, especially higher-order skills, such as critical analysis and problem solving.

The role of the exam board is to find a way to assess the students at the end of the course and provide recognition of their ability.

What will that involve?

Assessment this year will be a three-way partnership between exam boards, teachers and schools.

Exam boards are there to provide the resources, support and training for teachers and schools to make accurate judgements for their students – both in terms of marks on specific assessments and overall grades. The grading side of this will be particularly important, because marking student work is nothing new for teachers. What teachers don’t normally do is turn those marks into grades, so additional support must be provided.

Individual teachers will take responsibility for assessing their students, creating an evidence portfolio based on the information they have for each individual: mock exams (administered in school or remotely), class practice tests, coursework, homework, classwork – anything that builds a picture of a student’s ability. They will then assess the work in this portfolio against the grade descriptors and exemplification supplied by the exam board to arrive at a grade for each student.

The school is then responsible for ensuring all grades are accurate and standardised – within and across teams – and based on work genuinely completed by that student.

To achieve all this, exam boards must empower teachers and schools to make grading decisions confidently and consistently.

A flexible approach

Students won’t have covered the same material, in the same depth, or had the chance to hone their exam technique, in the same way as previous cohorts.

It is therefore vital that a flexible approach is taken to assessment this year. No two schools – no two students – have had the same experience of the pandemic.

Whereas, in the past, the golden rule of assessment was consistency (everyone sat the same test); this year, it is about flexibility and adaptability. Exam boards can provide materials but schools must be able to choose which materials to use with their students so they can arrive at an holistic judgement of a student’s ability – based on what they have covered, not what they have missed out on.

OxfordAQA is providing assessment materials for every qualification we offer, broken down into topic areas so that schools can use them in a way that reflects their students’ learning journey this year. We have also provided mark schemes for all questions, to ensure teachers feel confident in their assessment of students.

Further to this, to support the grading of students, we are supplying grade descriptors, along with examples of student work that exemplify those grades, so that teachers can calibrate their grading judgements against a shared standard.

These resources, along with training and guidance, is to help standardise grading decisions, so that all teachers are grading in the same way, and that the grades allocated are consistent on a global scale.

The final role of the exam board will be to quality assure the process from start to finish and to check that all schools have followed the same procedures. OxfordAQA is conducting virtual visits with all our schools to check they understand their responsibilities and are fully supported.

How will grades achieved this year compare to other years?

Exactly the same.

The reason for an external validation of a student’s grade is so that every time a student references that grade – be it on a university application or a job application – everyone agrees it has equal value to a grade awarded to any other student in any other exam series.

The global impact of the pandemic means that institutions and employers the world over are aware of the challenges education has faced this year. They understand the reasons why exams were cancelled and have been overwhelmingly supportive of that decision. Nobody is interested in penalising students for the situation.

Cancelling the summer exam series was not a decision we took lightly; it is not a decision we wanted to take. But when faced with a situation where some students would be able to sit exams, and others not, and where students have faced such differing levels of disruption, there was no way we could push students into a standardised assessment and get a fair outcome.

So, what are exam boards doing this year? In a sense, the same thing as we do every year: ensuring the right students get the right grades and that everyone is playing on a level playing field.