Why next week’s resits show our assessment system is broken

By Tom Middlehurst, ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist

Next week, thousands of 16 and 17 year-olds will resit their GCSE maths and/or English exams, having not secured a grade 4 or higher at the end of secondary school. Much has been said about the pressure this exam series places on schools and colleges: space for the exams whilst other lessons continue, staffing the invigilation of the exams, and the additional workload on teachers and leaders.

But the scale of this operation raises the more fundamental questions of why so many students are having to resit these exams and what impact – both positive and negative – doing so has on them. 

On the surface, the answer to the first question is straightforward. Roughly a third of students do not achieve at least a grade 4 – the so-called ‘standard-pass’ – in these subjects. This is a passport to further study and employment qualifications. Without a grade 4 in English and maths, this group (which ASCL calls the ‘forgotten third’) are excluded from multiple jobs including nursing, social work, and teaching. It is therefore a ‘condition of funding’ – to use the technical jargon – that schools and colleges make students who haven’t achieved these grades resit these exams. 

Again, on the surface, there’s a logic to this. But the problem is, it doesn’t work. In previous years, of that third of students resitting exams this week, only a third of them went on to get a grade 4 or higher, with one in five students actually doing less well than they did in Year 11. There’s no reason to suppose those percentages will be any different this year. 

Look below the surface
Why is it that such a large proportion of young people aren’t achieving at least a ‘standard pass’ in these key subjects in the first place? 

Ofqual will be keen to point out that the forgotten third is not a direct result of comparable outcomes; there is no set quotient of students who can achieve each grade each year. It comes down to the nature and performance of the cohort, and the expertise of experienced senior examiners. 

Yet Ofqual’s mechanism for adjusting grades if standards improve in a given year – the National Reference Test – will only ever produce minor changes. The forgotten third is effectively baked into the system and under the current trajectory, will continue to consign the same proportion of students to a sense of failure and a grinding system of resits for the foreseeable future.

And so, that forgotten third figure continues to be a stubborn gap that existed pre-pandemic and continues now. 
At ASCL, we believe there is something fundamentally flawed about a system which tells a third of young people, year in, year out, after twelve years of compulsory education, that they have failed. Does this not suggest that what we assessing young people against, and how we are doing that, needs to be rethought? 

What can be done about it?
Our view is that we need a better way of assessing the fundamental skills of literacy, numeracy and oracy that works for all young people and gives all young people dignity in their results and a genuine opportunity to demonstrate improvement and progress.

Since 2019, we have been calling for a new ‘certificate’ in literacy and numeracy, separate to the academic assessment of mathematics, language and literature. This would assess the key knowledge, skills, and aptitudes that all young people need to succeed in these fundamental areas (which, in our view, may be quite different from those assessed in the current English and maths GCSEs). It would be designed to be taken when students are ready and use existing digital innovations to make the assessment adaptive, based on candidates’ previous answers. All of the exam boards are saying similar things, with AQA, OCR and Pearson all publishing papers in the last two years arguing for a similar approach.

Frustratingly, the government’s new obsession with their proposed ‘Advanced British Standard’ – a wraparound qualification intended to replace A levels, T levels and alternative qualifications in the next ten years – kicks the problem into the long grass and, even more importantly, would close the stable door after the horse has already bolted. We need to focus now on the needs of the forgotten third, to ensure they are at the centre of any qualification reforms, and to find ways to support more of them to reach – and demonstrate that they have reached – high standards in literacy, numeracy and oracy in the first place, before they are condemned to a soul-sapping cycle of resits.

There is much else that must be considered that we don’t have time to dwell on here: the fact that those who are part of the forgotten third are more likely to be disadvantaged, the fact that the recruitment and retention crisis is most sharply felt in disadvantaged communities, and the gap in SEND funding.

But if we’re going to talk about changing exams, let’s make sure these young people are at the centre.
At ASCL, we wish all students taking exams next week the best of luck but hope that in the future, cohorts are served much better by our assessment system.

Tom Middlehurst is the ASCL Curriculum, Assessment and Inspection Specialist.

Posted: 02/11/2023 12:39:45