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Assessment Blog

12th August 2021 | Insider

What now for high stakes exams?

Picture of Melanie Thomson

Melanie Thomson

A level, GCSE, Scottish National 5 and Highers and many equivalent exams were cancelled across the UK for the second year running in 2021 due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic. But this hasn't meant that students and teachers have had an easy ride - quite the opposite in fact.

Many teachers report feeling under-valued and under immense strain over the past 18 months and some students have been left feeling aggrieved that they didn't get the opportunity to demonstrate their full potential or that they are now fighting for limited spaces in higher education. There have also been concerns raised over increased inequity in the education system for disadvantaged students.

With this backdrop, how can we work together to  improve the assessment experience for the future?

The (Recent) Past

There was sharp criticism in how 2020 grades were originally determined by many exam boards – Centre / Teacher Assessed Grades (CAG or TAG) followed by a process of standardisation by exam boards to bring grades more closely into line with how students at each centre might have been expected to perform under exam conditions (based on how previous cohorts at those centres had performed). As a result of this, the devolved Governments across the UK decided that the Teacher recommended grades could be used by students instead of the standardised grade, leading to far higher results across the board.

There are arguments for and against the relative fairness of either approach. Proponents of TAG point out that teachers know their pupils best and are well placed to grade and rank their knowledge or skills. Detractors argue that this is not how previous cohorts have been assessed, creating a disparity between students in different year groups who are likely to be competing for University places and jobs in the future.

Teachers also run the risk of being accused of bias – whether conscious or unconscious – regarding student ability or likely performance. The UK media, and the general public, naturally focused on the stories of candidates who had seemingly been unfairly treated by the process, with students expected to get high marks being awarded lower grades following the use of algorithms for standardisation.

The knock-on effect of these decisions continued, with Universities unable to offer places to all of the students who had been awarded the required grades.

The Present

With the main Summer exams cancelled for a second year in 2021 and a clear preference for TAG, Schools were advised by Government to ensure they had evidence for their grading recommendations. This could be based on coursework or assignments undertaken throughout the course, mock exam results or short assessments provided by the exam board. This led to exam pressures being brought forward for many students who, after another 2 months of online learning at the start of the year (and subsequent periods of self-isolation for many) sat mock exams with much less time to prepare and revise than normal, knowing this would be a deciding factor in their final grade.

What this approach didn't do was prescribe a consistent way for teachers to assess their pupils and award grades. With no plans to moderate or standardise grades at a national level, it is unsurprising that there is now controversy where candidates feel they have not been given the results they deserve, whilst overall increases in students achieving higher grades than previous cohorts puts pressure on University places. There have also been a number of concerns raised about social inequity where disadvantaged students appear to have been dealt multiple blows from challenges accessing home learning, increased rates of self isolation and less likelihood of grades being appealed.

There is no doubt that students, teachers, exam boards and governments are all wanting the same thing – an assessment system that is reliable, valid and fair for all involved. So how can we work together to continue to ensure this?

The Future

My four predictions for the future of assessment are as follows

1. Pen and paper exams will become obselete

Even prior to the pandemic, Jisc’s report The future of assessment: five principles, five targets for 2025 called for an end to pen and paper exams by 2025. Whilst the report focused on the UK’s further and higher education sector, the context of the report, which reflected on the fact that “Students learn, communicate and collaborate in a digital environment; go on to work in a digital environment and yet online assessment is some way behind the curve”, can equally be applied to the exams that school leavers in the UK are receiving results for this week.

The Jisc report acknowledges that the UK is behind many other countries in the adoption of digital assessment, citing India’s 5.5 million candidates per year sitting digital assessments.

RM partners with the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), supporting their Digital Assessment Vision which now sees school students across New Zealand taking much of their NCEA exams on computers.

This is more in keeping with how students are used to working and learning and New Zealand students have been very positive about digital exams, with 95% of respondents in a 2018 survey by NZQA preferring a digital exam over paper and 97% reporting that they found their digital exam experience a positive one. Andrea Gray, Deputy Chief Executive, NZQA, has said “Students are enthusiastic supporters of digital assessment; they tell us it reflects the way they are learning and living, with technology at their fingertips.”

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2. Digital assessment will enable new ways of assessing

There is also increasing focus from awarding organisations and educational institutions alike on the potential for digital assessment to change the way assessments are delivered and grades awarded. Without the logistics and security requirements associated with exam papers, on-demand or continuous assessments become a real possibility using question item banks which could deliver assessments in a much more personalised way for the individual learner – taken when they are ready rather than on a set date, or even being created as adaptive assessments to give the learner the best opportunity to evidence their knowledge and skills.

Pete Collison, RM’s Head of Formative Assessment explains:

“Meaningful assessment should do three things: engage students, prepare them for the world of work or higher education, and ensure fairness by eliminating bias and inaccuracy.

It’s important to keep in mind that a consistent approach to assessment doesn’t have to mean testing all students in the same way, or even on the same day. Knowing when to assess a student is just as important as knowing how to assess them.

It’s a question of equality vs equity, and education systems should carefully consider which methods of assessment – for instance, establishing the right questions, in the best context, delivered in an authentic way –best suit each individual learner.”

Whilst we all live in hope that the current pandemic will come to an end and that life can return to ‘near normal’, COVID has also shown us that education and assessment systems around the world need to have continuity plans. Schools had to adapt quickly to find ways to help students learn at home but exams couldn’t be allowed to run as normal given both the lost learning time and unpredictability around whether having hundreds of students in a enclosed space for hours at a time would be feasible. What we have seen in other sectors however – including higher education and professional qualifications – is a willingness to try different ways of assessing students remotely, either through open book exams, assignments or through the use of remote proctoring to invigilate online.

3. Digital solutions will support fairness and equity for future cohorts

Sam Freedman's Institute for Government Insight Report Covid Tests: School Exams in 2022 and Beyond notes that "next year’s exams cannot be assessed in the usual way. First, because those year groups taking exams in 2022 have already missed a considerable amount of schooling and, in many cases, are behind where they would normally be at this point. Second, due to large increases in grades in 2020 and 2021, reverting back to normal grading would heavily penalise the 2022 cohort."

In the report Freedman recommends that Ofqual publish a resilience strategy to prepare for any future crises. This could include "having essays written earlier during the course where appropriate and marked using ‘comparative judgement’, where markers compare papers and rank them rather than try to apply a mark scheme."

Both comparative judgement as an alternative to marking and the ability to calculate or evaluate comparable outcomes between cohorts of students can be supported by a solution like RM Compare.

4. Higher and further education will find new ways of meeting increased demand

Whilst the news focuses on universities considering introducing entrance exams to help them award limited spaces where more students than ever have received top grades, many institutions will no doubt see an opportunity to offer more distance or blended learning courses on an ongoing basis as a way to increase student intake. This could help students who need or want to continue living at home, reach students across borders and create new business models for different tiers of tuition fees based on a more varied offering of courses. Again, a trend that was already happening pre-pandemic only seems even more necessary as an answer to some of the current challenges faced.


If we can be sure of anything it’s that many things will not ‘return to normal’ in the way they were before COVID. Like in many other areas of our lives, we were already on a journey towards digital in supporting our education and assessment systems. The pandemic has simply underlined the need for this in order to improve flexibility, security, quality assurance and efficiency. For many awarding organisations and educational institutions it has accelerated existing plans.

If you want to learn more about how RM can support your organisation, get in touch through our contact form and tell us more about your digital assessment needs.


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