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Consultation update and a proposal for externally-set papers

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A levels and GCSEs, Coronavirus (COVID-19)

Our joint consultation with the Department for Education on awarding GCSE, AS and A level grades closes today (29 January) and we have already received over 90,000 responses. It is hugely important for those who will be affected by these arrangements to be able to shape the way ahead.

Several themes are emerging from the consultation already. What is clear is that there are no straightforward options for how exams are to be replaced.

I want to tackle one thing head on – the proposal to have externally-set papers or tasks to help teachers to assess their students objectively. Some have called these ‘mini exams’. This is not what we’ve proposed, but I thought it might help if I explained our thinking.

Teachers will need to take decisions about the grade they determine for their students based on a breadth of evidence. We believe that students should be given similar opportunities to show what they know and understand about a subject. This would also support teachers to assess their students consistently.

These externally-set papers could be provided by exam boards. One of the things we ask in our consultation is whether exam boards should also provide guidance and training to teachers. Teachers could use performance on a paper as just one source of evidence to determine a student’s grade.  Other sources of evidence could include mock exam results, internal assessments or work already completed.

We ask in our consultation whether these papers are a good idea and, if so, what form they should take. Should they, for example, use materials from past exam papers? Should it be mandatory for teachers to use them and, if so, when should they be made available?

An externally-set paper, marked by teachers, could support teachers as they determine the grades their students should receive. We propose that teachers should weigh up different pieces of evidence to arrive at the standard at which a student is performing. Having something set externally provides a useful reference point, and helps to support consistency between different students in a school or college, and between schools and colleges in different parts of the country.

So how would these externally-set papers be different to exams? In any normal year, exams are kept under lock and key and sat at exactly the same time by students across the country. And of course they are marked by external examiners.

Exams like this are not happening this year because of the pandemic, and the government has proposed teacher assessment, using the externally-set papers as one source of evidence. And here is how it might work: teachers would consider how well a student performed in the paper alongside other sources of evidence, to inform their assessment of the grade a student should receive.

The exam boards could also sample teachers’ marking as part of the external quality assurance arrangements and look to see how the school or college is using different sources of evidence.

Our consultation also proposes that exam boards use questions in their papers that are similar in style and format to those in normal exam papers. This isn’t because we’re trying to squeeze in an exam via a different route. It is because most students would be familiar with the sorts of questions used, as students typically use past papers to help them prepare for their exams. It just means there could be questions in a form that students are used to.

We have also proposed that teachers should have some choice of the topics on which their students could answer questions. Teachers could choose from a set of short papers, or select questions or sections based on particular topics, so that they could take account of what has or hasn’t been fully taught due to the disruption. The exact approach would have to be tailored for each subject, with exam boards confirming the details.

I hope this explanation goes some way to allay concerns that some students have expressed to us – that these are exams by the back door. They are not. But an externally-set task would help teachers by providing them with an external reference point, giving them greater confidence in the grade they were awarding.

If you haven’t yet responded, you can do so until 23:45 tonight (Friday, 29 January).

Simon Lebus
Interim Chief Regulator, Ofqual

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