WISERD GCSE Series – Part 2: Should internal assessment be used for GCSEs?

Earlier this week we looked at the recent reforms to GCSEs across England, Northern Ireland and Wales and considered students’ views on linear and modular courses. In the second part of this series exploring students’ perspectives on the fairness of GCSEs, Dr Rhian Barrance considers whether internal assessment should be used alongside exams.

The question of how much assessment should be completed in an exam hall under strict supervision, and how much should be completed by students in the classroom or at home has always been controversial. GCSEs are important assessments which can have a significant impact on students’ future life opportunities, and so we must ensure that they are assessed fairly.


What makes an assessment fair?

One obvious answer is that we should be confident the work submitted by a pupil is their own. This is why exams have been the mainstay of national assessments in the UK for so long. However, even if we are sure that a student’s work is their own, surely exams are not fair if they are not testing appropriate skills?

For example, we might question whether a history exam can assess the research skills students would need to study history at university, or whether a chemistry exam without any practical work could predict a students’ suitability for a degree in a science subject. If memorisation is the main skill assessed by exams in these subjects, then we cannot be sure that grades are being allocated fairly.

Fair tests also need to be designed in a way which allow all students to show what they know and what they can do. They shouldn’t aim to catch students out, but should instead enable a student to produce the best work of which they are capable.


Internal assessment in the UK

Because of the problems with exam-only systems, most GCSE subjects have, until recently, included an element of non-exam assessment. Until 2009, this was coursework, which students were allowed to complete at home. However, as a result of concerns that students were submitting coursework which they hadn’t produced themselves, coursework was replaced with controlled assessment. Students taking this new form of assessment could still see the task in advance and prepare for it, but in most cases they had to complete the written element of the assessment in class under exam conditions.


Students’ views and experiences

My recent research has investigated students’ views and experiences of controlled assessment, and considered whether they believe it is a fair form of testing. The study surveyed 1,600 GCSE students across Northern Ireland and Wales, and involved 20 focus groups.

The research found that students tended to prefer controlled assessments to exams because they usually take place in a classroom, which is seen as a more ‘relaxed environment’ (Female student, NI) than an exam hall. They suggested that students were more likely to fulfil their potential in this setting as they aren’t ‘done under the stress of an exam room [so] people will perform better in these situations which will reflect their true ability’ (Male student, Wales).

However, while most students preferred the classroom environment, some pupils complained that they couldn’t concentrate when completing written controlled assessment tasks (which should usually be completed in silence) because of the behaviour of other pupils. So while controlled assessment can be a positive experience for many pupils, for others it can present further challenges which make it difficult to demonstrate their knowledge and skills.

Moreover, while one of the expected benefits of coursework is that it reduces rote learning, some of our students reported that they had memorised essays produced by their parents or tutors. Data from the WISERDEducation study also suggests that memorisation might be a key skill utilised by some students: it found that 27% of students aged 14-15 years old in Wales surveyed in 2017 memorised essays at home so that they could simply write them out in the assessments. 5% of students also reported having a tutor who helped them with controlled assessment.

So our research suggests that internal GCSE assessment is a useful learning and assessment tool, but only for some students. Pupils’ experiences of controlled assessment seem to vary considerably depending on their school and family background.


The way forward

There is no easy solution to this problem, and exam-only systems come with their own set of issues. An initial step would be to consult further with GCSE students. At present, the majority of governmental consultations target teachers only and unless students are asked directly, policy-makers will only have a limited picture of how the assessments work in practice. They should know how students prepare for them and what skills they use. At the very least, we need to ensure that the policy decisions address the right issues and are responsive to the the views and experiences of young people.