‘All Eggs In One Basket’ – The Three Hour Exam
Timothy Salthouse is a University of Virginia psychologist. He has conducted extensive research into testing, from intelligence to aptitude tests (from the age of eighteen to over eighty) in the snappily titled: ‘Implications of Within-Person Variability in Cognitive and Neuropsychological Functioning for the Interpretation of Change‘ (Neuropsychology 21, no.6 (2007). Now, why is this relevant to our current British education system and Michael Gove’s proposed changes to our curriculum and assessment at KS4 and beyond? Please let me explain. The research prompts serious reservations about something most teaching professionals know instinctively – putting all our eggs into one exam basket is both reductive and destructive.
Michael Gove has proposed that we should do away with coursework or other internal assessment procedures, except for specific subjects, such as Geography fieldwork or Drama practicals. That leaves subjects like mine, English, looking likely to end up with a summative judgement of a three hour examination. We all have our reservations about the exam system. Like the Heisenberg principle in quantum physics, we know that to precisely test one thing, we must inevitably be less precise with testing others. Therefore our testing system becomes narrower and narrower, to make a judgement on a narrow definition of the ‘progress’ of our students. In our results driven system, the curriculum gets ever condensed to meet the progress measures. All the while, the complexity and wealth of information our students have to deal with in our digital age is not narrowing at all, but growing exponentially! Surely our reservations about an ‘all eggs in one basket’ assessment aren’t just unfounded fears from educators seeking to survive in a judgement laden, punitive system?
Salthouse’s research presents us with really unsettling answers about the accuracy and efficacy of such a crucial and singular ‘all eggs in one basket’ assessment. His research has uncovered that there is a wide degree of variability ‘within the same individual’! That, on different days, people could sit the same test and perform in a vastly different fashion. This clearly raises the issue that any one single measurement provides an insufficient evaluation of a young person. His data showed that ‘the within-person deviation’ in test scores averaged about 50 percent of the between-person deviation for a variety of cognitive tasks. With such a bell curve of performance for individuals, sitting the same test, without specialist revision or preparation, simply on different days, how can we justify an ‘all eggs in one basket’ exam to culminate years of study? How fair is it for students that examinations on a Friday afternoon, for example, may suffer a degree of variability which may make students worse off than other students sitting a different exam board on a different day, with some bad weather? The variables are huge and the stakes are sky-rocket high. Of course, we see punitive attacks on entire schools for deficient performance.
This issue does not take further issues into account, such as the quality of examiners, or lack thereof. There is no professionalisation of examiners and the consistency of exam grading is annually brought into question, particularly for subjects such as English, which have a significant degree of extended interpretation. I could show you some exam papers of my past students which have been marked shockingly badly. Coupled with within-individual variation, such summative judgements become even more questionable. To ignore the breadth of quality internal assessment for such a high-stakes test smacks of ignorance.
In other curriculum and assessment models lauded by Michael Gove, such as the International Baccalaureate Diploma, there is a significant proportion of internal assessments; from portfolio work, to oral recordings and to extended coursework essays, externally moderated. The iGCSE assesses oral recordings for the speaking and listening component. If our politicians are scared of cheating in the system then provide a better model that deals with the gaming (or better still, remove the corrosive competition inherent in league tables with course comparison indicators!), such as using oral recordings; live moderation; draft evidence in essay work, or a portfolio approach. These assessment models may be more expensive, but they will mitigate the risk of the high stakes end of course exam model. Perhaps Gove has these in mind, he is just keeping his curriculum cards close to his chest – I hope so!
As Salthouse puts it: “…the existence of within-person variability complicates the assessment of cognitive and neuropsychological functioning and raises the possibility that single measurements may not be sufficient for precise evaluations of individuals, or for sensitive detection of change.” A bit of a mouthful, but the idea is simple: we simply cannot have a system where one bad day can scupper the life chances of any given young person. That is no model for a system looking to enhance deeper learning and militate against teaching to the test.
The culture of resits is ultimately corrosive to deeper learning. I do not advocate a resit culture, the perverse multiplication of exams, it gains nothing, except perhaps the ample profits for the exam boards! Yet, surely we have advanced beyond the antique paradigm of the ‘all eggs in one basket’ exam. Portfolios, speaking and listening assessments, well structured coursework all have their place in a more holistic approach to assessment. Let it be rigorous – I have no argument with that – but let’s not play roulette with the future of our students.
As Michael Gove concedes on the issue of the EBC qualifications replacing the GCSEs he is still intent on measures such as eliminating internal assessments for academic subjects, and other such narrowing effects upon educational outcomes. He clearly lauds the certain judgements of examinations, when evidence put forward by the likes of Timothy Salthouse calls their consistency and accuracy into question. We must therefore challenge the narrow and reductive proposals and put forward better curriculum and assessment models. We have a moral imperative to ensure that our students have a fit for purpose assessment model that is rounded and fit for the twenty first century.