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05 May 2021

Pastoral Blog: Learning from April Assessments

Pastoral Blog: Learning from April Assessments

In one of his recent blogs, our Principal, Allan, explained the rationale behind our decision to assess our Year 11 and Year 13 students twice in order for us to be able to give accurate Teacher Assessed Grades.  He explained how the system we have chosen will lead to more robust data, leading to grades we can stand by and which can be substantiated with evidence.

In this blog post, I would like to consider the different options available to schools, considering the issue from the slightly different perspective of student wellbeing.

As you can imagine, Teacher Assessed Grades have been hotly debated wherever teachers have met together, either virtually or in person, over the last few months. My teacher friends have expressed surprise that we are running two full exam sessions this year, with the full number of papers being given to each candidate. Many other schools have taken different approaches, for example providing students with one test rather than the three papers per subject that our Year 13 students have been given over the past fortnight, followed by three more in May. Surely our system creates far more stress for the students?

Well, no, it doesn’t. As this first exam session has come to an end, many of our students are commenting that they are very glad that they have two sessions, with multiple papers per session. Where people often assume that student wellbeing falls as the number of tests rises, this has not proven to be the case. In actual fact, having multiple test opportunities means that each test has lower stakes. This has several positive impacts. Firstly, anxiety levels tend to be lower, as students don’t feel that they have THE exam this morning, with only one opportunity to sink or swim. If you were to observe our students before one of their exams this week, you would certainly have seen some evidence of nerves as they have taken these exams very seriously. However, you would not have seen any of the real fear which could have been the result of having only one testing opportunity. The same is true on an individual topic or question basis, as one challenging topic or question won’t have the same detrimental impact on the achievement of a students’ university goals.

Our system also means that the students can learn from any mistakes they made during the first exam session. I have been marking the papers from my Economics students, and there have been certain common errors which have been made, for example students forgetting that a question asking them to “examine” means that they must evaluate. The students will hopefully heed this advice and go on to improve their performance in May. After all, it is perfectly normal in the real world, whether at work or playing sport, to have the opportunity to improve through practice.

Some schools have taken this opportunity to completely move away from the idea of a final exam. These schools may have decided to award grades on the basis of classwork done throughout the year instead, again in the belief that students intrinsically dislike exams and that the removal of summative assessment will reduce stress. In fact, many students do see the benefits of a final exam (“enjoy” would be too strong a word!). Having a final exam to work towards can focus the mind and can lead to more effective learning, and many students find that they can produce their best work when working in an exam room with no distractions. An interesting article about this can be found here.

Of course, to reap these benefits, certain things must be a given. The specification must have been fully and thoroughly taught. The exams must be administered efficiently, with students being clear about exactly where they should be and when. Students with additional needs must have these needs accommodated, whether this is through being able to work in a smaller room or by using a laptop. Unlike many schools even in the independent sector, we screen every single one of our students so we know who needs extra time or exam adjustments. With these provisos in place, I am confident that, rather than leading to stressed and over-stretched students, our rigorous process actually leads to happier students with the confidence that they have been given every opportunity to succeed.

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