Over-emphasis on exams results risks ‘distorting’ learning, warns exam board

England’s biggest schools exam board is warning that school accountability places too much emphasis on exam grades and risks “distorting” learning.

A report published by AQA today, says that too much emphasis on exam results when assessing schools’ performance has led in the worst cases to “unintended and undesirable consequences”, such as “teaching to the test, narrowing the curriculum and focusing on those students whose performance has the greatest impact on the headline accountability measures”.

The board is arguing for much greater use of teacher assessment and has the backing of heads’ leaders. But recent government reforms have taken GCSEs and A-levels in the opposite direction towards more exams.

A chapter in the report, written by two of AQA’s senior staff notes that test results are the “central piece of information upon which accountability measures are based”.

It warns that the emphasis on exams could “place risk on the validity of the accountability system” and “might even undermine trust in schools and teachers”.

The chapter, by Alison Wood, AQA’s head of curriculum and assessment practice and Dr Anton Beguin, director of research and innovation at AQA’s Centre for Education Research and Practice, calls for an “adapted approach” in which schools used test results for self-evaluation and improvement.

As part of this, it said, exam results should be reported to schools in more detail than overall grades. These results could “serve as the basis upon which teachers could evaluate the approaches and methods they use in the classroom”.

The authors suggest as an example that a school could be told that its maths students performed less well at manipulating algebraic expressions than those at other schools.

The report, The Future of Assessment: 2025 and Beyond, calls for “a more effective balance between assessment and school accountability” and says that, within a decade, teacher assessment should be “professionalised and expert” and should “contribute substantially to students’ results.”

By 2025, it says, outcomes and standards should be determined by employers, teachers and assessment experts working together. Skills that could not be assessed through traditional written tests should be captured “in action”, using technology where possible.

Exam boards should also work with training providers to develop “valid, authentic” assessments of vocational skills that could capture a student’s “journey” as well as their final work.

Brian Lightman, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, said: “For too long the way children are assessed has been dominated by the demands placed on schools by performance tables and a culture of high-stakes accountability.

“This has been at the expense of the important role assessment and feedback should play as part of the learning process, rather than just being a set of external exams at the end of a course.”

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