Examinations or Estimated Grades for Summer 2021

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 3 December 2020
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered: Education; Coronavirus; Estimated Grades

Michael Allen Principal of Lisneal College in Derry has called for the summer examination series to be cancelled as conditions in schools with pupils and staff isolating and missing considerable periods of time, are making it impossible to prepare adequately.  During a debate in Stormont on Tuesday November 24th Education Minister Peter Weir faced a number of questions about examinations in 2021 from MLAs, including when he would provide contingency plans in the event of disruption to forthcoming GCSE, AS and A-Level exams series. He answered by again stating that GCSE and A-Level examinations would proceed in the summer, but he expressed concern that some schools, worried that exams will not take place, are over-testing their pupils on a daily basis to have evidence ready should continuous assessment be called for as happened this year as exams were cancelled and GCSE, AS and A-Level results were awarded using grades calculated by schools. Mr Weir warned that,

“.. if exams were abandoned in 2021, pupils would be put under, effectively a seven-month microscope, where every assignment, every action that they take would be a highly pressurised situation."

However, SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan told the minister that; "most agree - students, teachers, parents - that the fairest option facing you and facing our young people is to cancel GCSE examinations this year."

But Mr Weir told Mr McCrossan and Green Party MLA Rachel Woods that exams were the fairest way forward.

"It's clear that examinations represent - however imperfect - the best opportunity for a level playing field between students," he said.

There are a number of questions about learning and testing that arise from this debate. Firstly, is it harmful and even counterproductive to put pupils under pressure to reach a level of understanding? Secondly if judgements are then to be made about the progress and level of success of pupils based on how well they can demonstrate their learning through tests, can this process be done fairly?

In answer to the first question, my experience of education and life generally is that skill development and knowledge can best be enhanced by putting oneself under a degree of pressure and accountability. The classic line for teachers is often that pupils need to accept the concept of “deferred gratification”, namely, to invest effort and make sacrifices of leisure time now to enjoy the fruits of their labour later in adult life.

That takes us to a place where we (teachers and parents), decide what is best for pupils to do and impose a framework of learning to help them achieve. We make this work through a mix of pressure and expectation. The downside of this is that pupils can sometimes find themselves in a situation where they are frightened of disappointing parents and feel undue pressure and anxiety.  The argument against this kind of pressure is articulated well in online parental advice sites;

“Kids who feel that they are under enormous pressure to do well from parents and adults can experience consequences in multiple areas of their life, from their mental health to their sleep including higher rates of mental illness. Kids who feel like they’re under pressure can experience constant anxiety. High amounts of stress can also place children at a greater risk of developing depression or other mental health conditions.”

This view also holds that pushing kids to excel can damage their self-esteem. “The constant stress to perform interferes with children’s identity formation and can cause them to feel like they’re not good enough—or even that they will never be good enough.”

Read the full article here.

These points are well made and true but equally not putting some pressure on children can cause underachievement and opposite and equally detrimental problems.  Sarah Newton author and youth coach writing in 2016 about decoding youth culture behaviour and Identity suggests that;

“..most experts agree that to achieve later in life, we need more of a growth mindset. So saying things like, "Well you did your best..." when we know that is not the case may not always be the best thing to say to your children, in particular your daughter.

When we let a child lower their expectations because of stress we give them a powerful indicator that they are not capable of achieving what they want.  Instead, we should stretch our children while also making sure that the environments and structures around them support them more.

Our children don't have a stress and pressure problem, but problems around unclear objectives and not taking breaks. 

So we should never take the pressure off, we should work with young people to help them get clear about their objectives and make sure they are taking the breaks and have the healthy habits they need to succeed. 

Read the article by Sarah Newton here

These opposing views on how best to educate children are well rehearsed but as always, the best course of action is probably a balanced mix of both strategies. In this pandemic we are faced with the problem of how to keep children’s education progressing and how to fairly use assessment accountability tools and checks to see how well they have done.

The last academic years’ experience should have taught us that the formal examinations may well be impossible to stage, especially with such inconsistent learning experiences for pupils during the past few months. Equally though, schools will have realised that they will need extra rigour with in-house assessments if they are again to be asked for estimated grades that they can stand over. So, the Minister’s criticism of schools for trying too hard to get this right is I believe misplaced as is the idea that too much testing is intrinsically bad for pupils. Schools would of course be in the firing line in June if estimated grades were judged unreliable or if pupils underachieved because of lack of appropriate pressure to succeed.


This article is correct at 03/12/2020

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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