Swap ‘cliff-edge’ GCSEs for ‘test when ready’, says exams review 

Independent Assessment Commission says qualifications are 'inequitable and unreliable'

Independent Assessment Commission says qualifications are 'inequitable and unreliable'

Students should be tested “when ready” rather than made to sit “cliff-edge” exams, a review into qualifications has said.

The Independent Assessment Commission, funded by the National Education Union (NEU), has published an 80-page report today on the future of assessment and qualifications in England. 

It is one of five ongoing reviews looking into the future of exams as organisations look to reshape the system following the pandemic disruption.

IAC say their evidence suggests qualifications are “inequitable and unreliable” and do not provide young people with skills to “thrive” in the 21st century. 

In a series of 10 recommendations, they say alternative approaches to high-stakes exams as the only assessment mode should be trialled.

One solution is allowing students “opportunities to demonstrate achievements when ready” through 14 to 19 education.

Dr Jo Saxton, Ofqual chief regulator, told Schools Week last year that any developments towards online exams could help with a “test when ready” approach in GCSEs and A-levels.

But Geoff Barton, general secretary of school leaders’ union ASCL, said the idea is “good in theory but hard to land in practice” requiring such changes in the system that “it may not be realistic”. 

ASCL’s Geoff Barton

He said: “The difficulty is that a large number of pupils move on to colleges and training at the age of 16 rather than going on to a sixth form at their secondary school. 

“With the best will in the world, it is exceptionally difficult to plan and coordinate pathways across different institutions over the course of several years, and establish an appropriate and manageable qualifications system to match.”

Tim Oates, the director of assessment research and development at Cambridge Assessment, added the sector had moved away from early entry to GCSE as it had “many problems”. 

He added: “Who decides ‘when ready’? What if an extra year would have brought a much higher grade? It readily can lead to a proliferation of assessment.”

The IAC’s commissioners include Dame Alison Peacock of the Chartered College of Teaching and Olly Newton of the Edge Foundation think-tank.

Professor Jo-Anne Baird, who sits Ofqual’s standards advisory group, is also a commissioner on the review. It is chaired by Louise Hayward, professor of educational assessment at the University of Glasgow.

Hayward said the “time has come for change” and urged policy makers to act upon their report. 

Rethinking Assessment, Pearson, NCFE and the Times Education Commission are also carrying out their own reviews of the education system. 

A Department for Education spokesperson said exams are the “best and fairest” way of testing students and “ensure young people leave school or college prepared for the workplace and higher study”.

Ofqual has been approached for comment.

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