Exams are facing their biggest test as a measure of student achievement after continued lockdowns prompted cancellations for the second year in a row.
Educationalists and policy makers are scrabbling to find alternative means of assessment after it became apparent that there was no way exams this year would be a fair test of student ability.
But the level of disruption to education at all levels casts doubt on whether exams could be an acceptable way to grade students not just this year, but for years to come.
Public exams in England have been one of the biggest education casualties of the pandemic.
After insisting exams would go ahead this year – long after it became obvious that they would not – the U.K. Government finally bowed to the inevitable earlier this month and announced they would be cancelled.
Instead, a form of teacher assessment would be used to determine grades for 16 and 18-year-old students, although – astonishingly, given the amount of time to work up an alternative – the exact approach has still not been agreed.
Across the Atlantic, the SAT is still due to go ahead this year, despite the likelihood of disruption continuing into the spring and early summer.
But the impact of the pandemic on education poses a twin threat to the primacy of exams as an assessment tool.
One is that the use of a form of teacher assessment has the potential to provide an example of a successful alternative.
If assessment offers a satisfactory way of determining grades, then this raises the question of why an expensive system of exams is needed at all.
The educational establishment in the U.K. is wedded to exams – to an extent unmatched in most other Western economies – and found it hard enough to write off one year as exam-free, even under pressure of a pandemic.
But this attachment could be shaken if two exam-free years pass without the entire system collapsing.
But the second threat is perhaps more serious still. Exams were cancelled this year largely because students have had such widely differing experiences of education over the last few months.
While some students have been in school for much of the time, others have spent large periods learning from home, isolating as a result of Covid-19 outbreaks among their classmates, or even among their family and friends.
And while for some students learning from home means a full day of live lessons on suitable devices with adequate broadband and parental support, for others it is a very different experience.
The result is that the impact of the pandemic is likely to significantly widen existing disparities in attainment between students, according to research published today.
The Sutton Trust, an educational charity, found that children from more affluent households are 50% more likely to be spending five hours or more on schoolwork a day than their peers from less privileged backgrounds.
This means there was little prospect of exams being accepted as a fair test of student ability this year, and every chance that results day would be swiftly followed by negative headlines and possibly even legal action by those convinced they had been badly treated.
But these disparities will be felt not just by students who would have taken exams this year, but among those for whom exams are still some way off.
Students who are missing out on education now will have gaps that will probably never be fully filled, however hard teachers try to help them ‘catch up’ when schools do eventually get back to normal.
We know from past experience that schools find it almost impossible to close the gap between rich and poor students, and there is no reason to think it will be any different this time.
In the long run, these gaps will make little difference to their future lives, apart from in one, crucial, respect: their ability to pass exams.
And this will only be an issue when set against the much smaller gaps among at least some of their peers.
In other words, if everyone had similar gaps, then the overall impact as far as exams go would be small: everyone would be at a similar disadvantage.
But the level of variation between students means that the principal benefit of exams – providing a level playing field – will not apply, not for students due to take exams next year, not for those following them the year after and not for some years to come.
This may not mean the end of exams – the students who will be most disadvantaged are the ones least likely to make a fuss and be heard by the establishment – but it should at least give us pause for thought as to when – and perhaps even whether – exams can ever be fair again.