WITH all children back now behind their desks, the final hurdles in the school calendar in this difficult year are the formal assessments, especially for those who are leaving school and hoping to go to university, training or employment.

This applies specifically to Years 12 and upwards, but with ripple effects from Year 10.

There is also a mirrored issue with transfer tests in primary schools – another dimension of formal assessment. This is causing great anxiety in Key Stage 2, the upper primary age group.

For starters, if you have an older child at school in this age range – or indeed are a pupil yourself, –you could be forgiven for uttering a very loud “Eh?” at this point.

This is because, despite clear, bold-font text, schools – and especially grammar schools – are still using the language of formal examinations for in-school, teacher-led, teacher-marked, centre-determined grades. Quite a mouthful, I know, but that’s what it is.

These are not described as ‘real’ exams, as such, but more the fact the time and date each school has decided they’re going to allocate, to give a formal assessment in various subjects to help them achieve a final grade. In short, an ‘exam’ in all but name.

So, why are they doing this? As reported here in a previous article, schools must provide a grade based on around three pieces of evidence, and these may (or may not) include “the student’s performance in the CCEA Assessment Resource; in any non-examination assessments (including practical examinations, controlled assessment or coursework); other class tests and mock examinations; or any other work completed by students (for example, practice examination questions, extended essays etc)”.

‘Carrot and stick’

Before being critical of the schools, there are arguments for and against using the language of formal examinations – the ‘carrot and stick’ approach being the most obvious.

Some might say that it’s against the spirit of the system; the exams aren’t there for a good reason; and many children, through no fault of their own, have missed large chunks of learning.

For what it’s worth, CCEA has also clearly stated that any assessments shouldn’t be a high-stakes, be-all and end-all test, and fair enough.

Nobody wants to add additional stress at this stage of the pandemic, and the word on the street is that principals are indeed reminding staff not to use the language of “catch-up” and “having it easy this year”.

On the other hand, if schools don’t set dates, things could easily get a bit nebulous, and before you know it, angry parents could be banging on the school doors in August.

At least if there’s a date fixed for an assessment to be completed, there’s a level playing field, of sorts.

That’s not the full picture, of course, there’s another reason too, and that is the possible absence of evidence – but more on that later ...

From CCEA’s point of view, they are doing everything in their power to ensure that it’s as fair and transparent as it can be and that, at the end of the day, it’s only a stop-gap to make the best out of a very strange situation.

The simple facts are this. Schools can use any existing data they have to ascertain a grade but, if they want to, they can use optional assessment resources provided by CCEA.

CCEA point out that it is only likely that these optional assessment resources will be used where teachers will not have had time to cover sufficient content, so in these cases, their greatest use will probably be in the mandatory units of GCSE, and the areas in AS and A2 Level where units, especially where the specification has been reduced.

For those outside the jargon-filled world of education, A2 means the second part of A-Level; AS and A2 come together to form a full A-Level. You can have an AS Level on its own, but not an A2.

So where’s the evidence?

One of the big stumbling blocks to all of this process is the whole issue of selecting evidence; an issue that has many teachers starting to have sleepless nights. Literally.

While CCEA has made the magnanimous gesture, at least in their eyes, to tell schools they can use any assessed word to derive a grade, the simple fact of the matter is that many subject areas don’t have much actual physical evidence on record.

May sound ridiculous

This may sound ridiculous to those outside the sector, but think about it.

True, teachers keep marks and record scores on an EA-approved tracking system, but when a pupil hands work in, quite often you ask them to correct the errors and return it, or store it as exemplar material.

Indeed such marking up and continuous improvement is actually encouraged by the Education and Training Inspectorate, also more commonly known as ‘The Inspectors’.

Yes, by the way, there’s been no tracking when children were off, so that system isn’t of much use.

A quick walk around any classroom will reveal very little pupil or student work in a store.

Instead, the minute a child hands in something, it’s marked, corrected, tweaked, added to and often has become part of a longer journey, so much so that it’s hard to find a date where a whole class set was at the same point.

Of course, teachers know full well where their students are; it’s the collection of evidence that presents the difficulty.

If called on, this evidence must be produced within 48 hours, so teachers need to have it pretty much sitting on their desks before they use it.

The short answer is that after inspection upon inspection, teachers now have it in their DNA not to collect a batch of work and leave it marked and sitting on a shelf.

In the words of one local head of department: “They [CCEA] need to join the real world”.

Finding a class set of work that is graded and ready to go is well-nigh impossible to find.

A second point is that CCEA say that you can only assess what people have done. If a child has come back after lockdown and has disengaged from learning, he or she is in the same predicament that somebody who was off with Covid-19 finds themselves in.

This, in turn, means that both these examples of students have to be assessed only on what they’ve covered.

If they’ve done nothing, or physically couldn’t do anything because of the pandemic, that doesn’t matter one iota; they can only be assessed on what they’ve done.

In real terms, this means students are saying: “I couldn’t do this because I was sick with Covid symptoms”, when they may have been working on their PlayStation skills.

Then there’s a huge category of pupils who simply couldn’t complete work because of the cost of data connection, or similar IT issues that literally thwarted their work being completed.

Because of this, those who did the work at home feel they’re being punished by being asked to prepare a much larger body of work for assessment. There’s a growing number of people unhappy about this, and it’s an area that could yet explode.

For schools which go down the route of using provided assessments by their exam boards, it’s a mixed bag.

Schools are grateful that there are such materials out there, but CCEA’s dithering has lost schools valuable teaching weeks.

For those who teach English boards (AQA, EdExcel or OCR) or the sole Welsh Board (WJEC) specifications, they’ve had a head start as the materials have come early and are clearly laid out.

Another issue that eats into teachers’s time is the fact that subjects’s assessment objectives are not being cross-referenced.

In simple terms, when you decide to count a piece of work for a centre-determined grade, you have to cross-reference this with the Assessment Objectives to state what areas of the specification or syllabus you have ‘tested’.

The English and Welsh boards have this done for you, but not CCEA.

This is a fiddly and time-consuming task; doubly onerous when you have a five-week window or thereabouts to determine a grade for each and every student.

It’s not all doom and gloom, though, and at this time of the year we normally have the complaint that coursework deadlines, exams, the summer sporting fixtures, school trips and many other events that clog the school calendar are all on top of each other – well, that’s not happening this year.

With both parties, schools and examination boards being at pains to reflect fairness, let’s wait until results day before giving the education system marks out of ten.

We might be pleasantly surprised.