Can technology give an alternative to exams?
Education Educationalists would quite rightly rather focus their energies and expertise on teaching than testing, but few would disagree that we still need some means of measuring the outcomes of learning. However the exams system in this country has not fundamentally changed in over a century.
We know that a three-hour written paper can seldom be the truest, fairest and most robust means of demonstrating the outcomes of years of learning. We need more than a hand-written script to represent the skills, knowledge and competencies required for employment in the 21st Century.
Not only does the technology exist to solve the age-old problems of grade inflation, inaccuracies, appeals, inefficiencies, unfairness etc.; it has been in use all around us for years.
Everywhere outside schools, in professions from accounting to medicine, IT to construction, career-shaping decisions are based on scientifically and technologically advanced methods of assessment. These assessments, known as Evidence-Based Assessment (EBA), give a more reliable indicator of attainment and allow the individual to demonstrate the best of themselves without the stress and unfamiliarity of the pen-and-paper, exam hall environment.
The concept of EBA is growing in popularity because it focuses on enhancing learning experience and eliminates “teaching to the test”. It utilises the power of formative assessment to inform summative decisions - that is it allows the learner to learn, gather evidence, test and adapt their theories as they go along, just as they would in the workplace, rather than placing all their hopes on “the big day”.
One of the most vocal of the growing number of advocates for the adoption of EBA in schools is the awarding body OCR, part of Cambridge Assessment. And it should know: it provides A Levels and GCSEs in over 40 subjects, but is simultaneously extremely active in the vocational space, where it is already using these cutting-edge assessment methods with successful results.
It is delivering a new suite of qualifications known as the Cambridge Technicals, at different levels and in fields from Art to Business, and from Health & Social Care to Engineering, using a formative e-portfolio assessment system to inform summative achievement decisions. This gives each learner a portfolio of evidence that can be peer-reviewed as well as teacher-reviewed at every stage of the course The portfolio and journal can either be sent into the employer selection process or the university admissions process with a far more meaningful, rounded and reliable demonstration of their learning journey than a written paper would.
All of this can very easily be adopted in schools and colleges. Teachers would far rather be freed up to support learning, rather than being bogged down in marking papers. The necessary reform would be a big one, but by no means insurmountable.
If the process of capturing evidence is introduced right from the beginning of secondary school, this would give the system at least four years to bed in. Ofsted could act as a quality assurance body to ensure evidence is captured correctly, teachers are intervening at the right moments, and schools are addressing common skills gaps in a systematic, coherent manner (such as improving teacher CPD).
It need not even cost the Government any extra money – we need only to make better use of the existing investment. If the next generation are to contribute to our 21st Century economy, their destinies should not depend on a 19th Century examination.