In light of covid-19, are school exams old news?

Shailen Popat

On 18th March,  UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that, because of the covid-19 crisis, all schools would close and that summer GCSE and A Levels would not be sat. This has caused concern and anxiety for pupils, parents and teachers. However, is it actually an opportunity to rethink how we assess at these key points? Could we use this year as a pilot on whether exams could be replaced with school internal assessments and may that lead to more valid judgements and reduced stress?

Any expectation on teachers to assess students’ work adds to their workload and so it must be worthwhile. Critics like to argue that teacher assessment is both less reliable and more unfair than standardised testing. This is largely because teachers, like all humans, are subject to biases like the halo effect, confirmation bias, the anchoring effect, overconfidence bias (Didau 2019). We also overestimate our ability to assess students’ work fairly and reliably, and we tend to look more favourably on students with good behaviour. Some studies have demonstrated that the information that a student has a learning disability led to teachers giving a lower mark than teachers who were not given that information (Didau 2019). There’s also evidence to suggest teachers are unconsciously biased against children from ethnic minorities. And utilising prior attainment such as mock exams also raises issues about validity, as these were not sat at the end of a course of learning and students should have developed over time.

Teacher assessment has been used before. When GCSEs were introduced in the 1980s, coursework was included as a requirement in many subjects as it was felt that it may more validly assess important skills than exams. Coursework was intended to allow the assessment of the process through looking at a wider body of student work and to encourage creativity, reflective thinking and independent learning. Critics of coursework have concerns about authenticity, citing the possible unreliability of teacher marking, the potential for the assessment to be open to cheating, possible instances of students receiving excessive assistance from others and the reported risk of internet plagiarism led to concerns around whether work can be authenticated as the students’ own. Such issues led to Qualification and Curriculum Authority (QCA) decision in 2006 to remove coursework from GCSE mathematics, and to replace coursework with controlled assessments in other GCSE subjects. From September 2015 onwards, coursework was worth just 20% in some subjects such as English and there was no coursework in sciences, economics, sociology, psychology and business studies.

Controlled assessment is the approach to internal assessment where an awarding body sets requirements or controls for the setting of tasks, undertaking tasks, and marking tasks. The levels of control are set out for each subject in the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual)’s GCSE Controlled Assessment regulations. Controlled assessments were used where they would assess different constructs to written exams, and controls were set at the most rigorous level that would still allow assessment of these constructs. Surveys suggested that teachers had a generally positive view of controlled assessments, with one study reporting that over 70% of teachers considered it “important” or “very important” to have some form of internal assessment in their subject (Crisp and Green 2013). However, other studies found that there were concerns that teachers were coaching students to get the best grades by running practice assessments that were very similar to the actual assessments, and that different interpretations of Ofqual’s controlled assessment regulations led to some variation in guidance on the controls in the same subject across different schools (Crisp and Green 2013).

The other purpose of national examinations is to hold schools accountable, but again this could be done differently. Some academics suggest intelligent sampling, wherein not all students are tested but just a nationally representative sample. As the purpose of these exams would not be to judge individual pupils, they would be low stakes and therefor place reduced pressure on the pupils who would sit them. Of course, for teachers and schools the stakes would remain high, but there is something healthy about not sharing this accountability pressure with pupils. International tests such as PISA, TIMMS and PiRLS, all undertake survey-based assessments of educational systems around the world.

Therefore, if qualification bodies and teachers can seize this opportunity to demonstrate integrity in teacher assessment, the case for keeping them will strengthen.


Crisp, V. and Green, S., 2013. Teacher views on the effects of the change from coursework to controlled assessment in GCSEs. Educational Research and Evaluation, 19(8), pp.680-699.

Didau, D. (2019) ‘Should we scrap SATs? Cautiously, yes’ 

Shailen Popat is a Teaching Fellow in Public Policy & Management and teaches Msc programmes and supervises dissertations at INLOGOV. He is also an interpretive policy analyst who is currently reading for a PhD in Education at the University of Oxford. His academic perspectives are informed by 20 years of professional practice with Local Authority and voluntary sector children and young people’s services where he has worked as a Senior Practitioner, Team Leader and has founded and run RealiZe Youth Services for which he was recognised at the Northamptonshire Education Awards 2015.

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