Tony Stack, a Canadian educator, was developing a new way to assess children even before coronavirus. The decision to scrap end-of-year assessments after the pandemic struck presented the chance to put the “deep learning” approach into practice.
“It offered an opportunity for an authentic learning experience, outside some of the constraints of an exam,” said Mr Stack, director of education for Newfoundland and Labrador province.
This alternative model, used in 1,300 schools across eight countries, that prioritises skills and independent thinking “set a way forward for a more ethical approach to assessment,” he explained. “Skills that students need to learn through the pandemic cannot be assessed in a single test,” he added.
Most viewed the abrupt cancellation of exams in countries around the world as a regrettable loss that would diminish learning and life chances for a cohort of young people. A vocal group of educators also saw an opportunity to call time on the traditional exams system they say is unjust and outdated.
“The pandemic has exacerbated all these problems that were already there with exams,” said Bill Lucas, director of the Centre for Real-World Learning at the UK’s Winchester university.
He believes traditional assessments unfairly standardises children of different abilities, fail to capture essential skills and put young people off through its rote-learning, one-size-fits-all approach.
“Survey after survey says creativity, critical-thinking and communications are what we need. Exams don’t assess those things,” Mr Lucas said. “Covid has forced us to ask the question: ‘do we want to go back to where we were or do we want to stop and think?’”
Rethinking Assessment, the advocacy group he co-founded to push for change, has attracted support from teachers, trade union leaders, policymakers and academics.
Among them is Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, a Cambridge university neuroscientist who argues that exams such as the GCSEs taken by 16 year-olds in England exaggerate stress and anxiety at a time when teenagers’ brains are still evolving.
“We need to reassess whether high intensity, high stakes, national exams such as GCSEs are still the optimal way to assess the academic achievements of a developing young person,” she wrote late last year.
As a new coronavirus wave prompts further lockdowns, exams scheduled for 2021 also hang in the balance: England has said it would replace all formal exams with teacher assessments, while France and Canada have said they would assess children using mainly coursework.
Last year’s cancellation of many of the main college entry tests taken annually by more than 2m students in the US meant at least 1,450 colleges and universities moved to a test-optional policy, according to the US National Association for College Admission Counselling.
Justin Wells, executive director of Envision Learning Partners, a California school network pushing alternative approaches to assessment, said this underlined how exams were “not resilient”. “I’ve been sceptical of the power of these tests for a while but I was shocked at how brittle they are,” he said.
Educators were searching for alternatives to exams well before the pandemic. Qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate already include flexible, project based learning.
Leading UK private schools, such as Bedales, which have more flexibility over assessments than state-run schools, have replaced “prescriptive” GCSE exams with bespoke qualifications that allow more creativity and freedom in learning.
In the US, some schools and districts have adopted “graduate profiles” setting out competencies or skills such as compassion, determination or creativity. Shelby County, in Kentucky, expects students to be responsible collaborators, life-long learners and critical thinkers, which are necessary requirements in a “knowledge-based economy that emphasises ideas and innovations”.
In Newfoundland, the deep learning method has meant giving teachers more freedom to assess pupils’ pandemic experience, using projects children design themselves and enjoy.
One maths assessment, for example, involved younger children putting knowledge into practice with a recipe. When schools reopened in September, and free from pressure to cover a stringent knowledge-based syllabus, the children were able to spend more time outside, learning about nature in more Covid-safe outdoor classrooms.
The project-based curriculum of Animas High School in Colorado offers another alternative. Instead of end-of-year tests, students publish “digital portfolio” websites that showcase their work, goals and interests. Older pupils choose a topic and explore it through a 15-20 page research project, a talk and an initiative in the local community.
“They’re learning how to dive into texts, to engage and develop well informed ideas . . . You can’t test that on standardised exams”, said Jessica Morrison, the school’s counsellor.
Exams remain highly valued. Andreas Schleicher, director for education and skills at the OECD, said the disruption to end-of-term tests was among the “worst mistakes” of the pandemic that would exacerbate educational inequality.
“It was completely unnecessary and it will have far-reaching consequences,” he said. “You risk leaving a whole generation stigmatised. Without exams people will make so many judgments about people . . . I think exams are an essential part of the solution.”
Will Millard, head of engagement at the Centre for Education and Youth think-tank in the UK, believes talk of the end of exams is overblown. “It would be easy to look with rose-tinted glasses at other systems but every system has its flaws.
“My view is that 2020 might rekindle an affection for exams. It’s not very trendy but I can’t help but feel, given the furore . . . they might be in for a bit of a comeback.”
Yet Mr Schleicher also noted that countries with a varied approach to assessment did better in the pandemic than those with a more rigid test-based approach. In England, where coursework has been largely phased out for academic qualifications and pupils receive grades based mostly on end-of-year exams, teachers had little to fall back on when they had to decide grades.
That resulted in chaos after the government opted to calculate teenager’s results using an algorithm, only to dramatically abandon them for teacher-assessed grades after the computer’s decisions were deemed unfair. Countries such as France, which ordinarily use coursework and teacher assessment in combination with formal tests, fared better.
“If you have a broader method that you’re able to deploy, you have a route through,” Mr Schleicher said. “If you put all your eggs in one basket you have a problem.”
Mr Lucas also accepts that proper educational evaluations are always likely to be a hybrid mix that includes formal tests for key skills such as literacy and numeracy. Beyond that, however, he saw enormous scope for a diverse, student-curated and teacher-validated method of assessing young people.
“The real energy now — across the world — is in coming up over the next two years with research and prototyping that develops really credible, reliable and valid ways of assessing young people’s talents.”