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The education sector’s priorities for assessment

OCR Chief Executive, Jill Duffy, speaks at the Westminster Education Forum

Jill Duffy, OCR Chief Executive

Jill Duffy, the chief executive of our UK exam board OCR, has been speaking at a conference on the future of assessment in England. The Westminster Education Forum event focused on examining the assessment landscape in the context of the pandemic, and considering lessons learnt and priorities for the future. Discussion areas included the assessment system moving forward from the pandemic, support for students of all abilities, and the future use of technology. Delegates had the opportunity to consider the issues alongside key policy officials.

Jill, a keynote speaker at the event, set out OCR’s priorities for change, for assessment and content. This included the importance of addressing issues of equality, diversity and inclusion, addressing climate change, digital assessment and assessment reform, amongst other areas. The full speech can be found below.

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"I’d like to start by paying tribute to all the teachers and school and college leaders who have worked so tirelessly, and with such professionalism, during this terrible pandemic. Their resilience and their determination to support learners through such demanding times has been beyond impressive. Supporting young people is, of course, why we are here.

The impact of covid on the profession and on young people cannot be underestimated, and when we talk about priorities for assessment, we must bear this in mind. In the short term, I believe we must offer as much stability and certainty as we can, supporting teachers and students in the recovery of lost learning and ensuring exams take place this summer in the fairest ways possible. 

But at the same time, we know the experience of the pandemic has unleashed a great deal of interest in fundamental change too. We see this evidenced in the large number of initiatives, alliances and commissions putting forward different and often radical proposals for the future. 

OCR’s parent body, Cambridge University Press & Assessment, has played a significant role in this debate over the past year and I strongly urge you to seek out the blogs, debates and original research on our website under the banner of ‘the future of education’. 

Through this work, we understand the calls for reform. It’s important that we continually reflect on what can be improved in our assessment systems. But evolution is different from revolution. The GCSEs and A Levels being taken by students today are not the same as those taken by students when they were first introduced decades ago. Exam boards, regulators and education departments across the UK have moved with the times, drawing on evidence from around the world to make adjustments that continue to mean these qualifications are viewed as the ‘gold standard’ internationally. The combination of structured content and depth of topic treatment, backed by high quality learning materials and rigorous assessment is rightly seen as a blueprint for qualifications used in many other countries. 

However, it is right and proper that we should have a debate about what might need to change so we can collectively build a strong case if and when the time is right. 

At OCR, our core principle is that any change should have clearly evidenced benefits for young people. On that basis, I would like to put forward what I see as some of the immediate priorities for change, and not just for assessment, but also for content. 

The importance of addressing issues of equality, diversity and inclusion have quite rightly risen-up the educational agenda in recent years. OCR has already stepped up to this challenge by:

•    including broader content covering African Kingdoms and Migration in our History specifications; 

•    We have also partnered with Penguin and The Runnymede Trust’s ‘Lit in Colour’ campaign, through which we’re expanding access to writers of colour and those from minority ethnic backgrounds for students taking our English Literature specifications from September 2022.

•    Coupled with this, we have launched new equality, diversity and inclusivity principles for our assessment materials. We want every student to see themselves reflected in their assessment, so they can better engage with it and always achieve their potential. Our approach includes creating a bank of prescribed names that cover gender specific and gender neutral identities, as well as a range of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. 

•    And all of our assessors involved in setting assessment materials have received training on how to apply our principles ahead of them writing assessment materials to be sat by candidates from 2023. The training includes avoidance of stereotyping and being mindful of unconscious bias. 

Another key issue that education has a responsibility to address is climate change and cultivating a wider appreciation of the natural world. Young people in particular have been vociferous in their calls for the climate emergency to be more explicitly addressed in their curriculum and we have heard them. We’re developing a raft of changes alongside the government’s desire to green the curriculum. Our work includes promoting the introduction of a new GCSE in Natural History, as well as looking more widely at other curricula, like science and geography, and asking how we can do more generally to help students to appreciate nature and consider issues of ecology and climate change.

I am convinced that these changes will be genuinely transformative for students. They are radical, but can be achieved within the strong educational framework that is already in place. 

Many of the calls for reform are, of course, related to assessment. I’d like to talk to some of these, setting out which I think are a priority and which are not.

A lot of voices have focused on abolishing GCSEs. These qualifications are deeply embedded in our education system. They represent a key moment in the progression of young people. They are embedded in educational regulations, with duties to maintain standards. They influence our approaches to teacher training and accountability systems. And, of course, they are well understood and valued by the public as a measure of the education our schools deliver. The removal of GCSEs cannot be achieved quickly or cheaply. Nor are we an outlier. We know that most of the highest-performing jurisdictions around the world have some form of high-stakes assessment at age 16, and two thirds use external assessment at the end of basic secondary education either exclusively or in addition to internal assessment. Out of 21 jurisdictions, 14 use external assessment at age 15/16. And let’s not forget that, in a TES survey last summer, 60% of teachers voted against abolishing GCSEs. The views of the teaching profession must be heard in this debate. 

However, that’s not to say GCSEs are perfect; we also know that the assessment load here – the number of exams that students sit in the UK – is higher than in most other nations. This reflects both the amount of assessment per GCSE, and the number of courses taken by each student. It may be that we need to leave more room for non-examined learning, including supporting young people’s well-being and equipping them with other skills that prepare them for life and work. We should acknowledge this, while retaining the rigour associated with these important qualifications. 

And while we’re talking about a broader curriculum at Key Stage 4, I would propose a greater use of vocational qualifications among 14-16 year olds. In recent years we have seen a very big increase in the uptake of our Cambridge Nationals. Many teachers have told us about the importance of these qualifications for all students because of their different emphasis on the development of personal skills and the window they provide into the adult world of work. It is right that we should be providing this choice for our young people. 

Turning back to assessment, other voices have called for an ‘assessment when ready’ approach, but we need to be cautious about this. Assessment when ready has two issues: who decides 'when ready', because if students are entered early they may not achieve their best grade. And almost all 'when ready' assessment systems lead to an increase in the amount of assessment – as people seek to better their results by entering on multiple occasions.

I also wonder whether some of the criticism levelled at GCSEs is linked to the key role they play in performance tables. In the UK our attitudes to assessment are heavily conditioned by the use of qualifications data in measures of accountability - it's coloured our thinking as a nation. Attitudes to formal tests are very different in some other countries. In Iceland, for example, new termly tests of reading for all grades and all learners have been welcomed by parents because their purpose is to give effective learning support to each young person. Matters of accountability and assessment should be considered separately.  

An area where we do believe there is greater opportunity for change is around digital assessment. On-screen tests have been around for a few years now; for example, students taking our Cambridge Technical qualifications have been able to sit on-screen exams in a number of subjects since 2017. But Covid has elevated calls for more widespread adoption of all things digital. 

So, where are we? Well, OCR is now running the first phase of a digital mock exam trial with some computer science teachers in the UK. These exams are marked by Cambridge examiners with results delivered back to teachers via an online service. 

Early feedback indicates that teachers are generally positive about the service; with benefits including being able to test students’ programming skills leading to improved subject-based assessment and huge time saving in administration, exam preparation and marking. Teachers felt that overall, the service is intuitive and easy to use.  

And early feedback from students is that they found it a positive experience, although one challenge they may need to overcome is the sound of tapping keyboards instead of the traditional sounds of pen and paper tests! Some saw this as a natural progression of assessment because of how much their generation use computers and took it all in their stride.

This trial will help us answer questions about what would be needed to transfer GCSEs online. What really excites us at OCR and our wider Cambridge group is developing a ‘born digital’ qualification that links curriculum, teaching and learning as well as assessment. This will go way beyond just shifting a paper exam onto a computer screen and we are working on this for subject areas such as research skills, big data and programming. 

To summarise:

  • When we talk about change and priorities for the future, it’s important that we think about the nature and timing of any reforms, bearing in mind the current limited capacity for change in the system. 
  • There are some things we need to be getting on with and are achievable without fundamental upheaval of our educational arrangements, particularly where the curriculum needs to catch up with changes in societal priorities, values or technology. 
  • But there are also some very big changes being proposed which need a great deal of thought and very careful consideration. It’s right to have the debate, but we must take care not to lose the internationally respected foundations of our educational system in the process."