Time to Scrap the Three-Hour Written Exam?

27/08/2015 16:42 | Updated 27 August 2016

I can't think of many jobs that require you to sit down for three hours with a pen and paper, so why are we still asking our young people to do it when we assess GCSEs & A-levels?

Of course we still need tests of some form or another to verify knowledge and theory application but the schools exams system in the UK has not fundamentally changed in over a century.

Ernst & Young is the latest big employer to state that it is now ignoring degree classification and A-level results in its hiring criteria. Employers up and down the country have been nodding in agreement that GCSEs and A-levels are not preparing our young people for the world of work. So they have to invest millions into their own training and testing to bridge the gap.

The issue that needs to be addressed is not necessarily the curriculum, it is the way in which it is assessed. With the pressure to get to the top of school league tables being heaped upon teachers, it is the students that are suffering. They are drilled into passing exams and the certificates they receive on results days in August are not necessarily a true reflection of their skills and knowledge built up over years of learning.

At a critical point in the learning life of young people, GCSEs and A-levels should be about breadth and wider skills, not ticking boxes. The one-size-fits-all approach is not working; it is failing our young people.

We need to ensure that the qualifications young people receive give the truest, fairest and most robust measure of the outcomes of years of learning. They also need to place young people in the strongest possible position for progressing in education and entering the world of work.

Everywhere outside schools, in professions from accounting to medicine, IT to construction, career-shaping decisions are based on scientifically proven and technologically advanced methods of assessment, often involving the student demonstrating the application of acquired knowledge through practical activity. These assessments give a more statistically reliable indicator of attainment and allow the individual to demonstrate the best of themselves without the stress and unfamiliarity of the exam hall.

There are naturally, therefore, growing calls to introduce Evidence-Based Assessment (EBA) in schools. So what does it mean in practice and how would it change things?

The critical difference is that the old-fashioned exam is summative, whereas modern EBA can be both summative and formative - that is it can allow students to learn, gather evidence, reflect and improve as they go along, rather than placing all their hopes on a compressed period of intensive testing at the end.

We need to think of GCSEs and A-levels as part of a journey of learning and not just an exam at the end of an academic year. Learning is a constant process and should be assessed as such. The use of a digital portfolio in for school-age learners would give the candidate a meaningful body of evidence of their skills and competencies that has been assessed, verified, graded and given feedback by the institution and/or independent third party. More importantly this is something that can be adapted and improved over time throughout a career and become much more powerful than a single line on a CV: "Nine GCSEs, A*-C".

It isn't a case of throwing money at the situation to fix our outdated assessment system; it is about making better use of the current investment and existing technology. Successive governments have tinkered with the education system but have yet to deliver what the education system needs: a complete overhaul. EBA may be the vehicle to drive the much-needed cultural shift.