The conference on 10 October of the Socialist Educational Association decided to call on the government to stop SATs and other high-stakes primary assessments this year. It also demanded that moderated teacher assessment be used instead of examinations for GCSE and A levels in 2021, and that the Labour front bench take up that policy.
The Scottish government has already decided to replaced Scotland’s equivalents of GCSEs with moderated teacher assessment.
On 3 October the conference of the NEU school workers’ union voted to campaign for the replacement of SATs in 2021 by a system of moderated teacher assessment and a mixed model for GCSE and A levels for 2021, including reduced content and moderated teacher assessment.
The decision included a commitment to ballot to boycott SATs in 2021 if necessary. It also recognised that GCSEs, BTECs and A-Levels were unfit for purpose and committed to urgently developing and campaigning for alternatives.
Really GCSEs should just be scrapped, with no replacement at all. (Most countries manage with no comparable exam.)
The main arguments against these exams and high-stakes tests were true before the pandemic. Extra arguments are added now.
Students have lost three months already of the two years of frantic exam-cramming which the English school system imposes as run-in to its major exams. With mounting virus infections, it is almost certain that they will lose more, through partial if not total school shutdowns.
The loss will be greater for students from worse-off backgrounds, who are more likely to live in areas with high virus rates, who lack the technology and quiet space to study well online from home, and whose families can’t pay for private tutoring.
The exams should be scrapped for next year on grounds of justice and equality, even if we thought them good in general.
All of us have been “educated” from childhood in the idea that courses of study must be defined and measured by an exam as their aim. That is miseducation.
Schools and universities existed for hundreds of years before modern exam systems. The first high-prestige exam system in England, the maths “tripos” in Cambridge, dates only from the mid-18th century.
One of its results was to set maths in England way behind other big European countries in the 19th century, and for reasons common to many exams: they test only the ability to jump through exam-shape hoops, which may have little relevance to life outside exams. They distort learning, add unnecessary stress, and above all function to label most students as relative “failures”.
As G H Hardy put it when campaigning for the abolition of the maths tripos: “examinations with reputations and standards and traditions seem to me mistaken in their principle and useless or damaging in their effect... An examination can do little harm, so long as its standard is low”.
Pass-fail tests to check competence at driving buses, or doing electrical wiring, or working with percentages and reading graphs and tables, are necessary for some jobs. They are useful as long as everyone knows that they are not the aim and measure of education, and not the way to sift out the excellent from the competent.
Education should be for learning, not for exams.