Action on testing and exams for 2020/21 is critical

9th October 2020

Following last week’s survey of North East schools and increasing calls to move to CAGs by unions, this week it was announced that Scotland will be cancelling National 5 exams – equivalent to GCSEs. Schools North East is calling on the DfE to cancel SATs and modify exams to a hybrid form of assessment.

After taking views from North East school leaders last week, Schools North East are writing to the Education Secretary and local MPs to ask for significant changes to exams and testing this academic year. Given the disruption faced by schools and students not only last year but continuing in the form of periods of isolation and school closures, it is felt that it is not practical or feasible for exams and SATs to go ahead as normal this year.

We have called in the DfE to:

Suspend SATs at both KS1 and KS2 in 2021
Significantly modify how we assess both GCSE and A Level students this year, using a combination of exams and continuous assessment
If GCSE and A Level exams go ahead with no continuous assessment – to modify the content of these further to reduce pressure on staff and students
Suspend league tables this year and next and ensure assessment and exam results are not used in Ofsted judgments.
Urgently reach a decision and communicate it effectively with schools, providing detailed guidance.
If it is decided that exams go ahead in summer, provide a clear and robust contingency plan should there be further restrictions that make holding exams unsafe
These calls are based on feedback from North East schools. Last week’s survey indicated that the overwhelming majority of respondents were in favour of suspending primary assessments next year with more than 98% feeling they should not go ahead. When asked to identify which tests they felt should be suspended more than 90% indicated both KS1 and KS2 SATs. Over 75% felt multiplication tables checks should be suspended and two thirds were against phonics checks going ahead.

In written responses staff felt that exams detracted from what should be the main focus this year which is supporting student’s mental health. There was a strong feeling that any testing would not be accurate or useful and that ‘high stakes’ testing would reinforce the damage done by last year’s closures.

Equally more than 97% of primary respondents felt that league tables should be suspended next year, while all secondaries who responded felt this.

For secondaries the picture on exams was far more mixed. Despite growing calls from unions to move to CAGs just shy of 50% of respondents felt that exams should go ahead. Interestingly, in light of Scotland’s decision this week to suspend National 5s, more than 50% of respondents felt that GCSEs should not go ahead. Given that there is a mixed picture here, it seems most appropriate to use a hybrid form of examination, complementing exams with continuous assessment this year to ensure that grades are not jeopardized by single high stakes exams which practically may not be able to be held. It also helps support staff and students in schools which are facing significant disruption from groups needing to isolate or in some cases school closures. It is clear from school feedback, however, that any move to continuous assessment needs to be made clear to students so they understand exactly how and when their work will be assessed.

This disruption has significant impact on the most disadvantaged. NFER highlighted that the gap between disadvantaged students and their peers may have grown by as much as 46%. Given that many disadvantaged students struggle to access and engage with online learning, more disruption to in school teaching time is a cause for great concern in regions like the North East which have higher levels of deprivation. Ensuring a fair and consistent system for exams and testing this year will help prevent further disadvantage to these groups.

Staff are hesitant to move away from exams towards CAGs after the situation in the Summer which saw teaching staff accused of inconsistency, disparities and grade inflation. However, high stakes exams and testing in both primary and secondary this year may put undue stress on staff, as well as students, when staff are already stretched – covering classes and providing online learning, this is unsustainable.

Given that we are now 5 weeks into the school year and staff are planning and teaching towards this year’s tests and exams, action from the Government needs to be taken urgently. Any system of continuous assessment must include consultation and collaboration with the teaching profession, including guidance on moderation to ensure a fair and consistent system and that a repeat of last year’s results does not occur. We have also advised the Government to form contingency arrangements for any exams that do go forward, as the current situation of rising cases and school closures highlights the possible risks of going ahead with physical exams.

Read the letter sent to the Education Secretary