Advance notice of exam topics comes with problems too

6 Dec 2020, 5:00


The latest government intervention fails to take account of socio-economic inequalities, writes Rachael Booth

This week we found out that students sitting assessments next summer will be given advance notice of topics and allowed to take in exam aids in an effort to offset learning disruptions caused by the pandemic. 

In colleges and schools, the delay of information has already had a significant impact on student and staff wellbeing, with tension mounting on what plans will be decided. And we still don’t know yet what aids will be permitted for each subject or what FE-based courses will be included. 

But the new decision appears to give some students an unfair disadvantage and overlooks key socio-economic factors. 

GCSEPod conducted a survey with 2,649 16-year-olds and found 66 per cent of teenagers consider knowing topics in advance as a very fair measure. However, does having sight of the topic beforehand change the value of the result?  

Although there are revision advantages, examiners may have higher expectations, potentially resulting in added pressure for the students. Issues may arise for teaching and learning. Knowing a topic beforehand may beg the question ̶ are educators just teaching to test?  

Universities could be led to believe that students only have knowledge on a niche subject, rather than a well-rounded perspective of the whole topic. 

We also need to know what the expectations around exam aids are. They could dissuade students from preparing for their tests altogether, giving them the wrong idea about preparation and so hindering their meaningful understanding of information.

This latest proposal by the government may also only serve to further support those who have the means to access additional tutoring and resources. If they don’t reference deprivation in some way, then these measures will reinforce inequalities for years to come.

Another contingency measure would be to adjust grades by region to take into account varying degrees of coronavirus disruption. However, this risks students in, for example, the north losing out, as although they may be given more generous results, universities may see this as devaluing their grade.

The measures don’t go far enough and do not take into account socio-economic inequalities. A more strategic contingency plan needs to take this socio-economic inequality into account to avoid accentuating the culture of poverty. To do this, we need to assess access to resources to ensure all students are equipped with the appropriate tools and unfair advantages are eliminated.

Affluent students who have their own laptops and decent wifi connectivity at home are more likely to perform better than those who don’t have access to technology outside of the classroom. This is evident through last year’s private school grades and there needs to be radical change to address this disparity. 

A third alternative would be to reduce subject content and focus on academic and analytical skill acquisition, making clear to students and teachers what this focus will be. This would take account of disruption to learning. Although students would be measured on a narrower basis in terms of subject content, it would allow them to demonstrate their skill set and understanding.  

At Leeds Sixth Form College, we’ve noticed increased stress surrounding exams due to previous disruptions caused by the pandemic.  Enforcing rigorous assessments with reduced content means students would develop exam skills and learn to cope in a high-pressure environment. 

Another option could encompass a combination of centre-assessed grades and examinations. Students would still do exams, combined with teacher-based assessments. By working with awarding bodies, we could produce centre-assessed grades that have been quality assured. This may be fairer but would require a great deal of planning. 

The government needs to appreciate the human aspects and mental health implications of the current situation. While the announcement about advance notice of topics is welcome in its clarity, it comes with its own set of issues. 

There needs to be a clear and strategic assessment method that addresses inequality and gives every student a fair chance to succeed.

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