To cancel or not to cancel…that was the question for the Summer 2021 exam series

As Covid-19 continued to disrupt education across the world, students, teachers – and exam boards – faced difficult decisions on how to approach the Summer 2021 exam series. Jamie Kirkaldy, Head of Teaching and Learning Support for OxfordAQA, an international exam board offering International GCSEs, AS and A-levels, explores how OxfordAQA approached this decision and why fairness for all students was their foremost consideration.

There are a few phrases we have all heard far too many times in the last year and a half. Unprecedented times. New normal. Pandemic fatigue. “You’re on mute!”

As the education sector approached the tough decision on whether to cancel the Summer 2021 exam series, these clichés were hard to avoid. I will do my very best to avoid them here – but I can’t promise to dodge them all, simply because there are times when a cliché is just horribly true.

No precedent

I’ll start with – apologies in advance – unprecedented times. Nobody in education has seen anything like the disruption that has occurred over the last 18 months: global school closures, remote teaching and learning, uncertainty around the awarding of grades. And when you work in a situation where there is no prior model to work from, it requires you to take decisions you never expected to make. Two years ago, how many teachers expected their kitchen to become their classroom? How many students expected to get their education through a screen? How many of us expected there to be no exams in Summer 2020?

However, there was at least a sense that everyone was in the same boat. In the build-up to the Summer 2021 exam series, it became clear that the international situation was so much more varied than the previous year. This summer, many schools have returned to classroom teaching, but not all; blended learning is commonplace, with students accessing the same education in class or at home, depending on their circumstances. Some countries are in a position to hold exams, but many are not. The only constant is inconsistency.

It is also important to remember that students certificating in Summer 2021 have faced huge disruption to their studies, and that the extent of that disruption has varied enormously as well, with different countries taking very different approaches to school closure and reopening. This was true even within countries: I spoke to a Head of Department in Abu Dhabi who has hardly seen her students since March 2020, while 40 minutes down the road, students in Dubai had been back in school for months.

A level playing field

Nor is it just geopolitical differences at play. There has also been tremendous variation in students’ experience of remote teaching and learning, depending on access to technology, internet reliability and their school’s ability to quickly roll out the required systems.

In such a divergent context, teachers and students the world over were adamant that a standardised exam, sat by everyone, could never hope to give all candidates an equal opportunity to be successful and could not therefore be considered a fair assessment.

One option open to exam boards was to offer exams in regions where it was possible to do so, while schools in other regions submitted grades based on teacher assessment. At OxfordAQA, we of course considered this approach – we are duty bound to explore all options – but felt it relied on far too many variables to give a consistent outcome.

First and foremost, many students simply haven’t had time to cover the full curriculum, or at least not in the same depth as they usually would, so an exam that drew questions from the full course content would inevitably disadvantage some students.

Secondly, a two-system approach would require some form of standardisation, so that outcomes gained in a written exam and grades awarded by schools were comparable. This standardisation would rely on data-driven adjustments to one or both sets of grades, which carried unwelcome memories of the algorithm fiasco of 2020.

Lastly, as a UK-aligned exam body, offering a British curriculum for international schools, as soon as exams were cancelled in the UK, we felt it would be impossible to justify asking international students to be judged in a different way to their UK counterparts this summer.

Making the right call, for the right reasons

In the end, whilst it’s never a decision we would choose to make, cancelling the Summer 2021 exam series was the only option that was educationally fair, offered comparable outcomes, provided consistency and ensured students weren’t punished for when they were born, where they lived or what IT systems they had access to.

As we build back to some kind of – sorry – new normal, we will see a return to the exam hall and to standardised assessment. The form this will take and what allowances will be made for subsequent cohorts to ensure year-on-year comparability will be the next big decision for everyone involved in education, and many of the same considerations will apply.

These remain uncertain times (last one, I promise!) but one thing you can rely on is that OxfordAQA will always make decisions based on what is fair for everyone involved, and that we will support you and your students at every step.

To find out more about OxfordAQA, visit our website.

One thought on “To cancel or not to cancel…that was the question for the Summer 2021 exam series

  1. Chris Nicholls says:

    It seems to me that the key thing to consider is not whether what was done was correct – since we can’t go back and change it – but rather what the principles should be for the future. One way or another, whether it’s global pandemics or local issues (earthquakes, civil wars, coups etc), some schools are always going to face the situation of not being able to do exams onsite. I want the exam boards to agree now (not in the heat of the moment) what the principles are. That way, whatever happens, school leaders and teachers can plan for the eventuality. Let’s not find ourselves in the same quandary again!

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