If the past three years have taught us anything, they’ve sparked interest about the purpose and nature of high stakes tests; those annual exams, of significant public concern, occupy pages of news and dominate social media commentary. The GCSE qualifications represent a landmark educational moment for 16 year olds  – they are the metaphorical opening of a door to adulthood. We expect students to make choices about future study and employment, but this is proving somewhat contentious. Times have changed and now most young people in England follow some form of post-16 education indicating that the role of the GCSE has changed and so it’s important to consider two things:

  1. what GCSEs represent to the test takers and
  2. what they represent to the public at large. 

GCSEs are a public matter

Why the focus on public concerns about testing? It’s simple: high stakes tests are embedded in our society, they indicate a rite of passage through schooling. Also, consider the economics: annual exams are heavily paid for by Government funds to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds. These are not criticisms, but observations about the perceived value of GCSEs examinations and evidence for why, if we are to retain the regime for 16-year-olds, then we need to have confidence in its design and application. Additionally, given the fast-paced change in the employment markets, where new jobs are emerging every week we all need to know why it’s valuable to take so many qualifications and how such courses benefit the student, their schools and society.

Student views

The impact of lockdown and how this disrupted what was claimed to be a fair and robust system of national testing revealed the downsides to returning to linear structures of assessment (where there is no or limited coursework). When the pandemic hit the GCSE exam season and awarding, there really was nowhere to go.

Grade awarding from 2020 to 2022 has caused more press and public debates than ever and dented confidence as it exposed underlying disparities based on entrenched issues of social class, income and, in some cases, geography. What appears to be useful is a national review of what students find valuable in studying GCSEs during key stage 4. We need to ask them fundamental questions: what do you want from these qualifications? It might be that they are simply a steppingstone to the next phase and evidence demonstrates GCSEs are viewed as preparation for A-levels, hence the concern in 2022 for the cohort who had missed that practice opportunity back in 2020. But there could be other views – we don’t know unless we ask – the way that GCSEs are viewed assumes this is “the purpose of education” at key stage 4. The understanding of educational success remains firmly rooted in a Victorian model of educational attainment and despite the vast evidence base that different types of assessment can enhance learning, can motivate students and enable engagement for life, the fall-back position remains: exams, exams, exams.

The future’s bright?

I can see a different way forward: one that starts with a national review of the purpose of the GCSE and an authentic consideration of how we might assess learning rather than attempt to measure it in just one way. Critics would rightly be cautious about simply re-introducing coursework as it was, but there are new ways of working in the classroom and online that provide different opportunities to understand teaching and learning. Critically, the use of GCSEs as a tool for school accountability needs to be addressed as a matter of public concern; for too long the GCSE has had to play a range of roles and it is creaking under the weight of such responsibility.

The major commitment would be a programme of assessment literacy in secondary schools to determine a shared view of the aim of key stage 4 and what success looks like across a range of subjects for an equally broad range of students with differing life goals.

I am not arguing for more lessons in how to assess but instead giving students some responsibility for what they wish to do and what that could look like. It is easy to forget that GCSEs are a part of the broader legal rites of passage afforded to young people at 16. Not all young people are concerned with education, but GCSEs offer all young people a wider responsibility for decision-making in key aspects of their lives. Those in secondary school at present are considered the best educated generation to date, they surely deserve qualifications that reflect this claim.

Prof. Richardson’s book ‘Rebuilding Public Confidence in Educational Assessment’ is available from UCL Press at:  https://www.uclpress.co.uk/products/129449

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