Select Committee on Children, Schools and Families Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum submitted by Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL)


Assessment in Britain requires a radical review

  1.  In England, young people take externally set and marked examinations at the ages of 7, 11, 14, 16, 17 and 18. The system is at breaking point as more and more examinations have been added to an already over-examined system. The total number of examination papers sat by young people in schools and colleges each year in national curriculum tests at 7, 11 and 14, GCSE examinations, GNVQs, AS and A2 examinations and key skills tests is over 30 million. No other country has so many examinations, taking place so frequently in the life of a young person. Whilst Wales and Scotland are in a slightly better position than England, their examination and assessment systems are also heavily over loaded.

  2.  The ASCL paper Examinations and Assessment (SHA, 2002), stated:

    We do not argue against assessment. Far from it. High quality assessment is an important part of good teaching. [But] the purposes of assessment have become confused. This has happened largely because external examinations have assumed too much importance in the system. Examinations have become the master of education, not the servant.

  3.  The Tomlinson report, published in 2005, recognised the problem of too many examinations and advocated greater reliance on in-course assessment by teachers, recommending the use of chartered assessors, as proposed by ASCL [SHA] since 2002. The Daugherty report on assessment in Wales also advocated a reduction in assessment and the Wales Assembly Government has put this into place, although the replacement system is proving unnecessarily bureaucratic.

  4.  The current problems on assessment may be summarised as follows:

    —  Young people are subjected to far too many external examinations. These take place more frequently than in other countries. The relentless pressure of external examinations can interfere with the enjoyment young people take in learning, can lead to excessive levels of stress, and in extreme cases to mental health problems.

    —  Schools and colleges spend too much valuable curriculum time in directly preparing for, and conducting, external examinations.

    —  The purpose of external examinations is confused between diagnostic, summative and qualification (for the examinee), component of performance management (for the teacher), accountability (for the school) and indicator of national achievement (for the nation).

    —  The examination system is very costly (see paragraphs 5-12 below).

    —  The complexity of the examination system has led to concerns about the accuracy and consistency of marking and results, with increasing numbers of re-marks being sought at GCSE, AS and A levels.

    —  It is becoming very difficult to find sufficiently qualified and experienced staff to be the markers, moderators and examiners of the external examination system. As a result, some papers are being marked abroad.

    —  There is a lack of trust in the professional ability of teachers to carry out rigorous internal assessment.

  5.  The cost of external examinations is excessive and uses too high a proportion of school and college budgets. The cost comprises three elements:

    —  Examination fees.

    —  Administration time (carried out by support staff since September 2003).

    —  Invigilation (carried out by support staff since September 2005).

  6.  The PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) report on examination costs, commissioned by QCA in 2003, published in 2005 a figure of £610 million as the cost of the examination system. ASCL has carried out its own surveys from time to time and our figures suggest that the cost is at least that figure. The costs are broadly consistent between institutions of comparable size.



Direct Costs
Time Costs

QCA Core costs
QCA NCT costs
Awarding body costs
Exam Centres—Invigilation
Exam Centres—Support & Sundries
Exam Centres—Exams Officers
Total costs (£m)

Source: PricewaterhouseCoopers

  7.  Since the PwC survey costs have risen further. ASCL does not have aggregated figures (though these may be available from the DfES) but it is clear from a small sample of schools and colleges that the direct cost to institutions has increased. Some examples are:

  8.  An average sized sixth form college in the West Midlands with roughly 1300 full time students spends £300,000 on examination fees, invigilation, and administrative staff employed solely for examinations work. In larger sixth form colleges, the cost of external examinations is now well in excess of £400,000—often the second highest item on the college budget after staffing.

  9.  A large tertiary FE college in the North West has an annual expenditure for examination fees alone of approximately £650,000, and employs three dedicated staff at a cost of £75,000. The principal estimates that about 4% of the college annual budget of £20million goes on external assessment.

  10.  In a 1,500-pupil comprehensive school with a sixth form in Wales, the cost of examination fees is approximately £100,000. The cost of administration of the external examinations is over £17,000, and the cost of support staff for invigilation is approximately £13,000. A total of £130,000.

  11.  The cost of examination fees in a typical 11-16 school of 960 students in the Home Counties is £60,000.

  12.  None of these figures includes the opportunity cost of the time of staff whose main responsibilities lie elsewhere, though teachers, heads of department, and senior leaders all devote a proportion of their time to setting up, supervising and analysing external examinations, and supporting students through them.


  13.  The purpose of tests and examinations has become confused with school accountability and the performance management of teachers. The same assessments are used for the following purposes:

    —  Diagnostic assessment.

    —  Formative assessment.

    —  Summative assessment.

    —  Evaluative assessment.

    —  Ipsative assessment.

  They are also used for:

    —  a component of the qualifications structure;

    —  monitoring progress;

    —  teachers' performance-related pay;

    —  performance management of teachers;

    —  school and college performance tables;

    —  accountability of schools, colleges, local authorities, the Learning and Skills Council and the DfES; and

    —  meeting national targets.

  14.  Of the last group of seven purposes, five are evaluative, demonstrating how the Government has skewed the assessment system from its prime purposes of diagnostic and formative towards the evaluative. The assessment of the work of young people has become primarily for the accountability of schools and colleges, rather than to be of value to the students themselves.

  15.  The use of assessment for learning has improved the quality and extent of formative assessment, encouraging students to think more about their own learning and helping teachers to mould their teaching style more effectively to the needs of the students. Assessment for learning has become an important element in student voice, in that it provides students with a structure in which to feed back to their teachers information on the effectiveness of their learning. It is therefore a major contributor to personalising learning.

  16.  Teachers have been criticised for teaching to the test but, if the system is geared to constantly monitoring progress and judging teachers and institutions by outcomes, it is hardly surprising that the focus is on ensuring that students produce the best results. Particularly at Key Stage 2, this results in over-preparation for the tests in May of year 6, followed by a period with much less emphasis on the tested subjects. By September, when the children enter year 7, they have had four months of this post-test phase—hardly the best preparation for the start of secondary education. Many secondary school leaders believe that this is a major contributory factor in the so-called Key Stage 3 dip in performance.

  17.  Intelligent accountability for schools and colleges is not helped by the use of test scores to produce league tables, nor by the way in which the Government is trying to produce a single measure of accountability—the contextualized value added measure—as a precise indicator of the effectiveness of a complex institution such as a school or college. Schools and colleges expect to be held to account for their performance, but measures should not claim greater rigour than they can stand and confidence intervals should always be included.

  18.  By producing league tables of performance at age 14 and by using Key Stage 3 test results as an indicator for Ofsted inspections, the importance of Key Stage 3 tests is magnified unnecessarily. The critical test results in secondary education are at age 16 and 18—no employer or university has ever asked an applicant what they scored in Key Stage 3 tests. A check on the progress of 14 year olds in the major subjects is necessary for schools' planning and self-evaluation, but this could be achieved without the use of an elaborate series of external tests.

  19.  In a 14 to 19 qualifications system, the importance of GCSE at age 16 will also be played down from the huge external examination industry that it has become. In its early papers on 14 to 19, the Government itself described the future role of the GCSE as a progress check and we agree with this as the 14 to 19 system matures.

  20.  Nobody criticises A level teachers for teaching to the test, because the test is widely respected and the syllabus provides an excellent education for the students following it. Schools want to focus on developing deep and sustained learning with assessment systems supporting that process and this is possible at A level.

  21.  ASCL does not support the introduction of the A* grade at A level, believing that there is adequate information available to highly selective universities to distinguish between the best candidates on the basis of their module grades, their raw marks and their wider achievements, information on all of which is available to admissions tutors.

  22.  The progress of the education system as a whole could be monitored more efficiently and effectively. The aggregation of individual test scores creates a high-stakes testing system in which the pressure is bound to create a false picture of progress. National curriculum testing should not therefore be used to monitor progress towards the achievement of national targets. Instead, random sampling tests should be carried out by a new body, similar to the former Assessment of Performance Unit (APU). Monitoring of progress should be by national sampling, not by national saturation, as we have at present.


  23.  At all levels of external assessment, greater trust should be placed in the professionalism of teachers who have, in recent years, become more rigorous and skilful at assessment. Internal summative assessment should play a greater part in the examination system.

  24.  National curriculum tests at 11 and 14, GCSE, AS and A level examinations should rely more on in-course assessment through the professional judgement of teachers.

  25.  A problem with relying more on internal assessment by teachers is that there is a lack of public trust in the professional ability of teachers to carry out such assessment rigorously. A change in the balance between external and internal assessment must take place in a way that maintains public confidence in the qualifications system.

  26.  ASCL has proposed the establishment of a cohort of chartered assessors, a system of in-course assessment that will produce no loss of rigour in examining and will thus secure public confidence. Chartered assessors will be experienced teachers, externally accredited to carry out in-course assessment to external standards. The chartered assessors will be responsible for carrying out or overseeing rigorous in-course assessment that will form a substantial proportion of externally awarded qualifications. It will be the responsibility of the chartered examiner to mark and grade work at the standard of the external qualification to which it contributes.

  27.  Chartered assessors would develop expertise in formative assessment and assessment for learning, as well as understanding and enforcing rigorous standards in tests leading to the award of qualifications. Assessors from one school might also support another school where colleagues were inexperienced in assessment or where there were problems in teacher recruitment and retention.

  28.  ASCL proposals for chartered assessors are being taken forward by the Institute of Educational Assessors (IEA) and the use of chartered assessors is envisaged in the current development of 14-19 diplomas.

  29.  Precedents exist for the role of chartered assessors, both in the qualifications for teachers who assess vocational courses, and in the accreditation awarded to modern languages teachers to carry out A level and GCSE speaking tests. Teachers apply for accreditation and undergo training before they carry out oral examinations or in-course assessment to external standards.

  30.  In-course assessment, if carried out rigorously and to external standards, gives a truer picture of a student's standard of attainment than an external examination taken on a particular day. A combination of externally set tests and internally set work would form the basis for the assessment.

  31.  One way in which chartered assessors could be deployed has been described by the chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA). In a speech in May 2006, Dr Ken Boston stated,[1] "no other country devotes as much time and expertise to developing measures of student progress". He went on to outline ways in which the system could be re-balanced to rely less on external testing without sacrificing rigour in the assessment process:

    "If teacher assessment were taken to mean that teachers should set their own tests, and decide on that basis whether a child is, say, a Level 4 in KS2 English or a C in GCSE Maths, then I personally would reject such a proposition—not because of any lack of faith in the professionalism of teachers, but because of the impossibility of being able to strike a common standard nationally across all the classrooms in this country.

    "If teacher assessment meant, however, that teachers in primary schools and in the early years of secondary education had access to a national bank of standard-referenced tests and examinations which had been trialled and piloted by test developers and awarding bodies under QCA regulation; that the tests and examinations were administered within a specific window of time; that the papers were marked using a mark scheme on which teachers had been trained; that their marks were externally and independently audited by chartered assessors belonging to the Institute of Educational Assessors; and that the system for doing so was demonstrably as rigorous and robust as the current system in maintaining standards nationally and producing valid and reliable data on national performance—then it might well be a better process than the current one, and something which the QCA could recommend to Government".

  32.  ASCL strongly supports the approach being recommended by Dr Boston. Furthermore ASCL believes that unless there is recognition of the role that chartered assessors can play, the delivery of the proposed 14 to 19 qualifications framework will not be viable.

  33.  The proposal to create chartered assessors will raise the status of teachers and of in-course assessment in schools and colleges. It will improve the quality of school- and college-based assessment and thus contribute to the raising of standards in schools and colleges. It will provide a new step on the continuum of professional development for teachers. It will provide important professional development opportunities for aspiring classroom teachers. It will make just-in-time testing more viable and reduce the length of the examination period each summer. Above all, it will make the examinations system more manageable whilst retaining the credibility and standards of the external examination system.


  34.  The use of pupil progress measures, as proposed by the Secretary of State in 2007, is in principle a move in the right direction of intelligent accountability for schools. Good teachers measure the performance of individual pupils on progress made and it is right that the same principle should be used to measure the performance of schools. However, the proposals as set out in the consultation paper will not have the desired effect. There are several specific aspects about which ASCL has major concerns. The response of ASCL to the consultation is appended at Annex A, which includes an alternative proposal from ASCL for the operation of the progress measure so that it acts as an incentive to schools to raise the achievement of all pupils and not just the group of pupils defined by the threshold measure in the consultation paper.


  35.  ASCL strongly supports the Key Stage 3 review proposals from the QCA, but believes that the purposes of the review in re-thinking and broadening the curriculum may be threatened by the continuing narrowness of the Key Stage 3 tests.


  36.  The assessment systems of the proposed diplomas are as yet not fully defined. Experience of previous attempts to introduce quasi-vocational qualifications, for example GNVQ, lead ASCL members to be concerned that the assessment of the diplomas may be too much like those of GCSE and A level. Effective vocationally-oriented courses cannot be assessed in the same way as academic courses. Much of their purpose and value is lost if they are forced to be so assessed. The diplomas should be different from GCSE and A levels and their assessment should fit the purposes of the qualification, not a pre-determined single view of external testing. Parts of a diploma course, such as functional skills, may be most appropriately tested by external tests (quite likely using ICT). But most other aspects should rely on teacher assessment, using chartered assessors as outlined above.


  37.  ASCL welcomes the effect of the workforce reform agreement in transferring examination invigilation from teachers to support staff. This is having a beneficial effect in reducing the burdens on teachers.

  38.  ASCL also welcomes the modernization agenda being carried out by the National Assessment Authority (NAA), which is seeking to streamline the work of the examinations office and reduce the bureaucratic burden in that area.


  39.  ASCL is concerned at the proliferation of university entrance tests. It is extremely difficult, especially for maintained schools and colleges, to prepare students for the many tests that now exist and thus we believe that these tests discriminate against some students and act against the policy of widening participation in higher education.

June 2007

1   Speech by Ken Boston at the launch of the Institute of Educational Assessors, 9 May 2006. Back

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