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Don’t cut exam content in 2022, let’s spend the summer catching up

This year’s grading process has been unfair and stores up problems for later – but it needn’t be that way next year, writes Emma White…

Anyone involved in the run up to the Summer 2021 Centre/Teacher Assessed Grade debacle will remember this year for its confusion, chaos and voluminous workload.

For  my company Mark My Papers, externally assessed grades meant a huge barrage of work. No complaints – it is after all what we do, and we do it very well, but in overseeing the entire process what became most striking was the variety in content, approach and examining practices from one school to the next.

Guidance was open to interpretation and it fast became a head scratching contest from content to grading and everything in between.

For me personally, 2021 will be remembered for its unfairness. The different levels of learning viewed and graded as one and the same, loose interpretations of “minimum content requirement” in order to obtain a grade and pre-structured paragraphs to help build responses for some but not others.

There were home-educated students rushing to bag an A-level or GCSE without actually having completed the full course (in spite of Covid having had little or zero impact on their schooling), students proclaiming one text would suffice when they should have read three and various science papers written to challenge the 25 per cent content that a student knew best in protracted detail.

Presiding over such a concoction of practices was a challenge and one that was inevitable when the government proposed their “assessments but not as we know it” policy. So how are universities and employers supposed to take away anything meaningful from this year’s results?

“Are these students suitably equipped to go on to the next stage of their journey or are we simply passing the problem uphill?”

The only way to ensure fairness is that students sit the same exam covering the same content on the same day at the same time. Surely, if our role as educators is to provide a complete course, should we really be giving out grades where less than the full challenge has been met?

Are these students suitably equipped to go on to the next stage of their journey or are we simply passing the problem uphill? And if we allow individual teachers to judge these children under their own particular set of subconsciously, emotionally biased, circumstances, we will no doubt have A* students entering the wider world who would have achieved a more modest grade B at a sterner centre – and vice versa. I can draw one conclusion – we need to catch up.

“The seeds of fracture will again blossom into a fully-fledged free-for-all where assessment again falls into the hands of the centre.”

If we deem it acceptable to reduce that content for next year’s exams then we need to know now and we all need to agree on which bits. But in reality, that policy simply erodes the quality and value of what we teach. Already the dissent is growing for 2022 – school A claiming to have covered X whereas others have studied Y. The seeds of fracture will again blossom into a fully-fledged free for all where assessment again fall into the hands of the centre and huge variations in approach create a lottery where results and life prospects depend largely on luck.

Surely, for our exam system to have any worth we should try to stick to cover the entire specification? After all, content has been painstakingly drawn up to equip students for the next stage of their lives so it should be of paramount importance. Once we reduce topics or forsake skills by omitting chunks we simply pass the problem to universities and employers. So the focus needs to be on catch up or we will permit this damaged learning to pervade our entire education system for years to come.

“Surely, for our exam system to have any worth we should try to stick to covering the entire specification?”

This summer is not a time to rest and put our feet up, thinking that we can face the problem come September. Every day matters and our responsibility is to tackle the likely disaster for next summer by endeavouring to make our children exam fit for May 2022 with all the skills and content they need in order to further their life prospects.

Some schools have already done this but the industry needs to put pressure on those who haven’t because the very best students will be disadvantaged by the growing need to modify the challenge to help the most impacted. The result will be more A* grades than ever and many of them undeserved, hence the more able students will be competing for university places against less capable students but who boast equally impressive grades and look identical on paper.

“This summer is not a time to rest and put our feet up, thinking that we can face the problem come September.”

If this means sacrificing time we had earmarked for ourselves then so be it.

There will always be those that steam ahead and those that trail behind but the bulk, the main body of students need to be much further on collectively and we can’t forever rebuild the challenge to suit individual needs without undermining the whole educational platform we stand upon.

This must be of particular concern to independent schools who rely on overseas parents to believe that what we offer is the best. They will no doubt send their children elsewhere, where exams are more rigid and reliable and viewed with less cynicism by the wider world.

What is one summer when students and schools will pay for this for a lifetime?

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