by Rebecca Conway, Freelance Assessment Consultant

The government has bold ambitions to rebuild the post-16 qualifications landscape in England. The original plan to dramatically streamline the system and force learners to make a binary choice between a technical (T Level) or academic (A Level) pathway was met with fierce criticism from educators and other key stakeholders who have argued that the reforms will disproportionately impact the most disadvantaged of learners. Robert Halfon’s Education Select Committee (ESC) is now investigating the proposals and alternative options for the future of post-16 education.   

While the challenges of the pandemic have inspired a new flurry of reports and projects on assessment with a strong focus on equity and inclusion for all learners, it’s striking that the ESC’s Call for Evidence and the government’s communications on post-16 reform demonstrate an apparent lack of interest in assessment. Yet, if we’re to successfully reform our post-16 education and skills system and ensure that it’s accessible to all, we need to cast a critical eye on assessment too.  

As Lucy Simpson and Jo-Anne Baird highlighted in a 2013 study, our system of qualifications and public examinations is built on trust. The ‘mutant algorithm’, grade inflation and apparent disadvantage caused by some alternative awarding arrangements have had a devastating impact on the ‘currency’ of qualifications and any redevelopment of the landscape must look at how trust can be rebuilt in both assessment and qualifications.   

Evolution not revolution 

A key part of this is collaborating with learners, teachers, employers and all other stakeholders to understand how best to recalibrate the system to address structural concerns.  

Helpfully, there are a number of recent publications that draw upon stakeholder and academic research to reflect on the future of assessment. While many are aimed at reforming school education, there are common themes in these reports that also apply to post-16.  

This includes, for example, the need to consider reducing the reliance on high stakes written examinations, to take a fairer and more inclusive approach, to consider how skills can be best assessed, and the role of innovation and technology. The overall vision for the future of assessment is of evolution not revolution with the learner front and centre. This feels both equitable and achievable.   

Technical education  

In the Department for Education’s most recent consultation on level 3 (which closed in January 2021), they proposed introducing terminal summative assessment for all adult qualifications.  

Thankfully, the government decided against introducing this rule, acknowledging concerns that it wasn’t appropriate and committing to working with Ofqual, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and relevant stakeholders to ‘ensure the content of these qualifications is assessed in an appropriate way (p.42).’  

This is good news for future adult learners, but it does suggest an attitude in the Department that terminal summative assessment (including written exams) is necessary in all technical qualifications.  

The New ERA Assessment Commission and others have called for a move away from exams to a more blended assessment approach in schools. Existing assessment approaches to vocational and technical qualifications show how this can be a fairer and more inclusive approach to take.   

The need to assess occupational competence alongside knowledge means that vocational and technical qualifications necessarily use a diverse range of assessment methods to enable a valid and reliable assessment of what learners know and can do.  

Yet, high stakes exams remain a dominant feature in technical education and the high proportion of assessment by examination in T Levels suggests that it may play an increased role in the new level 3 landscape.   

All stakeholders involved in qualifications design 

In developing assessment strategies, awarding organisations follow Ofqual regulations and sometimes have to adhere additional design rules set by the Department for Education (e.g. for applied generals). These rules and regulations are important ways to ensure quality, reliability and consistency, but they can also encourage the use of particular assessment methods and stifle innovation.  

Given the profound changes that we’re likely to see in technical and vocational qualifications for post-16 learners, all stakeholders should be invited to discuss qualification design and the extent to which reliability will shape the assessment approach.  

Building dialogue  

Speaking about standard setting in 2020, a member of the Expert Panel for Pearson’s future of assessment project described how ‘we don’t do a great job of explaining how it works.’ This is a fundamental assessment challenge. It’s a highly academic field which requires a firm grasp of complex concepts (validity, reliability coefficients, construct irrelevant variance) and statistics. While knowledge about qualifications, apprenticeships and exams is commonplace, how much do we talk cross-sector and in wider society about what good assessment looks like? 

The sheer volume of assessment commissions and reports published in the last twelve months demonstrates a strong interest in opening up conversations about assessment.  

Awarding organisations have made a significant contribution to these reports and we must continue to work across the sector to talk about assessment, building shared knowledge and encouraging stakeholders to shape and challenge our work in new ways.   

Dr Rebecca Conway is a Freelance Assessment Consultant