Could coronavirus shape the way assessments work forever?

Exams cancelled? This is the next wave of impact on education systems caused by the Coronavirus. The UK has cancelled its GCSE and A-Level exams. The CBSE board in India has cancelled exams for classes 10 and 12, national open school exam and the joint entrance exam, Madhya Pradesh is postponing secondary education exams until further notice. NAPLAN exams in Australia have been cancelled for the year. Pennsylvania is cancelling its PSSA testing and Keystone exams.  The list goes on.

Image: NEA

It is increasingly said that this public health crisis is prompting large questions on economic and social life that were just beneath the surface, not least in education. The case of assessing learning is just one of those.

A focus on exams gives a structure to learning. Removing that structure, and the end goal that students have been working towards – some of them for years – will be hugely disappointing, and no doubt stressful for many. “They are taking away everything I have been working for?” one girl said in the UK when she heard the news. What are the implications?

Various different methods, and mixes of methods are being suggested by countries to put in place of exams. These include using previous grades from mock exams, teachers’ assessments and prior grade expectations.  But to what extent will these be fair representations of performance?

If exams are going to be replaced by predicted grades, for example, as proposed in the UK (but which might also implicitly be in the thoughts of many planners around the world), one concern is that this opens the door for stereotypes around particular types of students. Teachers are not immune from social bias, of course, as the forthcoming 2020 GEM Report on inclusion and education discusses. Such a change is likely to disadvantage black and minority ethnic and working-class and other marginalised students, about whom bias might result in lower expectations from teachers. The UK, for instance, moved from a modular system of assessment, including teacher assessment, to the current system that is more exam focused partly because the former system had been shown to be inconsistent and subjective.

As these debates rage, we must remember the strong arguments against the over-emphasis on exams, data and ranking, which many claim are at the expense of learning. Exams are not the only purpose of an education, this argument emphasizes. They should be the means to education ends, but not an end in themselves.

Picture 1On the basis of these arguments, but unrelated to the virus, Zimbabwe is moving towards some forms of continuous assessment, feeling that it assesses student achievement in a far more balanced way. Announcing the change three weeks ago, the minister of education said: We want to produce a child that can survive in any situation so we are producing skills as opposed to producing a child who can only cram. Before an exam, you would find someone stuffing themselves with information. Regurgitate what the teacher has been saying. What was done for over two years is dismissed over two hours? 

While millions are going through somewhat of a social experiment as they shift from one approach to another, it is worth drawing on the evidence from the 2017/8 GEM Report showing how highly debated test-based accountability is, with mixed evidence even on how it affects student achievement. Across 51 education systems participating in PISA analysed for the Report, 11 systems used test-based accountability. Of those, 5 saw some increase in their PISA mean mathematics score from 2003 to 2015, while scores decreased in 6. The most studied test- based accountability systems, including those of Australia, the Republic of Korea and the United States, did not show improved PISA performance on average or at the bottom of the distribution.

And, while we may worry for the impact on the disadvantaged with the sudden shift today to teacher assessments, various types of unintended negative consequences for the most marginalised also come with high-stakes accountability. With explicit sanctions and rewards, for instance, test scores may become the central focus of schooling, rather than one objective among many. Schools may initiate practices that maximize test score improvement rapidly but undermine overall quality and learning. Schools and teachers react to the pressure in several ways, including shaping the testing pool, narrowing curriculum, teaching to the test, teaching those on the verge of passing, and explicit cheating, where students may also be involved.

The 2020 GEM Report looks at assessments from the viewpoint of inclusion and calls for the focus to shift away from high-stakes assessments and instead to focus on students’ tasks: how they tackle them, which ones prove difficult and how some aspects can be adapted to enable success. Low-stakes formative assessments carried out over the education trajectory are far more fit for the purpose of inclusive education. They would also mean that sudden interruptions in education such as today’s would be less of an issue for ensuring qualifications were not affected.

Whatever the views may be on either side, it seems that Covid-19 means teacher assessment will be back in some form or another. It is easy to see how this year’s events could be the doorway to a new system that has less reliance on tests in the future. Will students be convinced of the change? Perhaps next year, once all this is over. For now, we owe it to them, and all the work that has already gone into their education to make sure this experiment does their learning justice.



  1. I suspect the shift will not be from large-scale or standardised exam-based assessments to teacher-led assessments – because for the latter, you need a lot of interaction with the teacher which may not be feasible in the post-COVID ‘classroom’. I expect various forms of personalised testing options will increase – following from the personalised learning ones already proliferating like Byju’s and Khan Academy etc. PISA has already developed adaptive, computer-based testing as has NAPLAN in Australia – these are likely to become widely available and perhaps even available to individual subscription. Or school systems may buy up subscription to such individualised learning and assessment plans – side-lining teacher-led assessments. Of course this will massively increase the inequality that already exists with large segments of the population unable to access the technologies required to run these programs. Or perhaps the world will see tablets becoming more evenly distributed, high-speed internet made available widely for free by governments – and such measures may go some distance towards creating some equality, even though the advantages associated with socio-cultural background will take a couple of generations to overcome. But what about basics like electricity to run these devices? Will the reduced power consumption that may result from reduced consumption in general post-COVID make for a more equitable distribution of these basics?
    It is, of course, not clear what effects of ‘personalised learning’ and ‘personalised assessment’ will have on both learning and on society. In terms of learning, ‘personalisation’ will depend very much on some generalised ‘standardisation’ that provides the norms that under-grid the adaptive systems. Typically, these will be black boxed and therefore will not be easy to critique. This means that a particular conception of ‘learning’ will get even more globalised. As to learning, what happens to epistemology when a social act such as learning, which depends on common sense-making, loses the ‘society’ of current classrooms remains to be seen. Perhaps virtual classrooms will replace them admirably, even if not always synchronously. Perhaps not. In terms of implications for society, it is worth pondering how ‘individualised learning’ (mimicking individualised medicine and precision medicine) might affect our sociability and sense of social responsibility. But perhaps COVID will teach us that our own well-being depends on the well-being of others, and within that context, people will find ways to make learning more widely available and accessible to all.

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