In his latest report on social mobility, Alan Milburn suggests that universities are failing to spot academic potential among applicants from underprivileged backgrounds. Yet even institutions with the same outlook as Mr Milburn struggle on this front, thanks to an examinations system that has consistently failed to highlight that potential.
The arguments over assessment in GCSEs and A levels are nothing new. What to examine, and how, have been debated by teachers, academics and politicians for decades. Every time we think we have the answer, something happens to suggest we do not. And yet for all our experience and expertise, here we are again heading for a reform of examinations which is deficient in every sense.
That is not to say that examinations are not in need of change. One of the problems with modularisation and allowing students to do endless retakes is that learning becomes instrumental. Our students find themselves on a treadmill of short-term learning to achieve the required number of marks to progress to the next level, until they reach the end point of their education.
In a system like that, you often end up focusing on outcomes rather than the process of learning. As a consequence, the motivation and joy of learning as a good in itself becomes diluted into a series of tasks.
Potential changes to the A level system sketched out by Michael Gove have already been dubbed the “ABacc”. Plans for a mixture of courses in both arts and sciences and the introduction of a “dissertation” do appear to widen the scope of post-16 education, although assessment will still be dominated by end-of-course examinations lasting up to three hours.
The predominant use of an exam will not measure the complexity of learning but instead how well a candidate performs for a limited time, on one given day. The importance of understanding learning as a multi-faceted exercise is largely lost, with this collapsing the process into how well you can regurgitate facts in the exam room.
The reforms are a lazy and uninformed policy that shows no thought, nuance or engagement with a deeper process, and understanding, of the way in which learning, the curriculum and assessment are intertwined. And it is totally lacking in showing universities and employers what a candidate has learned and understood, instead attempting to reflect a narrow view of learning synonymous with a traditional university diet, one which many universities have now moved beyond.
The work of Knud Illeris, a Danish professor who has published widely on learning theory and application, proposes that the process of learning can be divided into three dimensions. The first is cognitive learning, focusing on content and understanding of the subject; emotional learning is that part which uses our “mental energy” and motivation. And finally, social learning, achieved through interaction with the environment, is when individuals learn from each other.
If we want to understand, through assessment, the degree to which young people have learned and their potential, then we need a spectrum of assessment types that enables us to look at all these dimensions. The problem with a dominant use of end-of-course tests is that you are only assessing a third of this process (the cognitive), becoming a very narrowly defined way of measuring student achievement.
Furthermore, far from removing the possibility of candidates being spoon-fed to pass exams, it will actually lead to more teaching to the test. Additionally, students who are lucky enough to be taught by examiners working for the awarding bodies, or who have the personal resources to pay for private tutors, will receive an unfair advantage. Do we really want a return to this?
The introduction of a dissertation which sits beside A levels subjects is a move in the right direction in terms of assessing research skills and academic writing. However, it is still a narrow view of learning.
In most university courses, assessment media have diversified dramatically over the past decade in response to criticisms concerning employability. Therefore, while the move to a dissertation might be argued to be positive, it goes nowhere near far enough.
What the government should consider is a “Learning Transcript” – a formal portfolio along the lines of what used to be the Record of Achievement, but which is an official document detailing students’ achievements and experience, including the success they have shown in different approaches to learning.
This would give university admissions tutors and employers a much deeper understanding of the successes, qualities and capabilities of an individual than is reflected in a grade – and would go some way to achieving the recommendations of Alan Milburn’s social mobility report.
A similar portfolio, the Higher Education Achievement Report, is now being introduced by most universities so there is scope for a joined up approach from school through to higher education.
Under the current A level proposals we may see some potentially excellent students not getting into university because they cannot conform to the government’s narrow template of what a student should look like.
We should not be trying to address problems with the examinations system through “quick fix” ideas. Instead, change should be considered and built, in consultation with schools, universities and employers, and over a period of at least five years of trialling and piloting, to ensure that assessment is changed to better fit the process of learning.
As things stand, while Mr Milburn wants state schools to better prepare young people for university, potential government changes to examinations are in danger of being too narrow and out-dated before they are ever enacted
Further informationAlan Milburn’s report, University Challenge: How Higher Education Can Advance Social Mobility, recommends changes in the way universities select, fund and encourage students from more disadvantaged areas. Suggestions include offering all students from poorer backgrounds an interview and considering offering places to those with lower grades. It also calls for a new version of the Educational Maintenance Allowance to help poorer pupils remain in school to do A levels.
Dr Phil Wood is lecturer in education at the School of Education, University of Leicester.