Exams are expensive and stressful. You would assume it would be human nature to put all effort into avoiding them but there always seems to be an urge by some people, who have sat them in the past and know they won’t in the future, to inflict the same experience on the next generation. In January, after much speculation and delay, the UK conceded to 2021 being the second year in a row where no end of year exams would take place in schools. Sadly for the UK, the Conservative government has spent a decade increasing the value of summative exams and reducing or removing all other forms of assessment. This has left the country, like others, wrestling with the challenge of inventing an alternative set of measures within an education sector no longer equipped to handle them.
Over the next decade, the students who gained access to university during the pandemic might be challenged on their worthiness to have achieved a place, but what if they perform essentially the same as regular cohorts? Many are asking if this will be the catalyst to challenge the expenditure on exams, in time, money, and stress. But others note that the private sector’s lobbying power to continue the promotion of their exam products in the US and UK will have administrations quickly return to dehumanizing and inequitable exams. This lobbying also includes the equally large private exam-support industry for those students lucky enough to afford these extra preparation products. One such support company called EasyA even saw the promotion opportunity in producing placards for students demonstrating against the UK’s exam algorithmic disaster last year. Surely the name “EasyA” itself challenges the value of exams in the first place.
Excellent leadership in New Zealand, where I live, has meant we have not felt the full pain of COVID-19, and life has been almost normal. But if we had to react to COVID, educational leadership in NZ over the last 20 years would have avoided assessment issues as well. I will explain the two key aspects to NZ assessment and why they contribute to more learning, less stress, and flexibility to cope with world pandemics.
- Leveling up
New Zealand assesses all students from ages 5 to 18 against ‘Curriculum levels’ in eight key disciplines. Teachers are asked to make these levels visible and to engage with learners as they work in relation to what level they are performing at and what is required at the next level. This program is in on-going development nationwide, but in successful schools, learners can articulate their recent performance and discuss their own current targets in regards to attaining the next level. Assessment of a level can not be based on a single piece or style of evidence, so any summative tests become a tool for the learner and lose value as external motivators carried out mainly for administrative purposes. The focus of the NZ assessment system is the child and not any particular piece of output. The sense of leveling up and having clear steps to the next level is exactly what makes computer games so popular and it’s great to work in a country that engages this intrinsic motivation technique based on the core principles of learning.
- Self-moderation by trusted teachers
When it comes to gaining access to university, the majority of high school assessment is carried out in class in what we call ‘internal assessment.’ Teachers mark the work of their own students and then samples are moderated across schools to ensure equal measurements are being applied. New Zealand has done this for the last 17 years and although it took a few years to develop good habits, the system is widely accepted and has been used for all university entrance for NZ students during those years, ironically even when they went abroad. It is possible and common for students each year to gain university entrance due to the work they did in class and without sitting any externally marked, summative exams. Credits are awarded for each piece of work and enough credits in the right disciplines lead to acceptance on a particular university course. In 2020, the NZ Ministry of Education made a brief statement to say they would award an extra “COVID” credit for any 5 credits gained and the country carried on as normal.
This week I was talking to a Dean of Engineering from Auckland University who used to lecture at Oxford University, in the UK, who agreed with a growing number of companies that there was little or no correlation between qualification/exam success and future performance in either university or employment.
The New Zealand school curriculum has eight guiding principles and one of those is equity. As the world discusses COVID creating an uneven playing field, we all need to recognize that this has always been the case, where summative assessment fundamentally impacted these inequities and that there are more successful, human-centric, and importantly, cheaper forms of assessment that maintain an emphasis on learning not ranking.