Normality Returns for Exams, or Does It?

After the past two ‘pandemic years’, schools and students across the UAE are evidently expecting public examinations for the CBSE/ICSE, International Baccalaureate and UK curriculum GCSE and A Levels to take place after the hiatus since 2019. But has exam normality really returned?
Normality Returns for Exams, or Does It?
By Lyn Soppelsa
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Students at Indian curriculum schools have already experienced a change in process, with their Grade 10 and 12 exams being split into two sessions (one in term 1, the second to come in term 2), and now the Indian Supreme Court will decide whether the second session goes ahead.

This follows a plea submitted against the final examination decision of various state examination boards including Central Board of Secondary (CBSE), Indian Certificate of Secondary Education (ICSE) and National Institute of Open Schooling (NIOS) to hold in-school examinations in April.

Many students and parents in India have demanded the cancellation of the Board Exams for 2022 amid the fear of the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic and the risk for students of having to appear in person at exam centres. It seems unlikely that UAE schools would be able to go ahead as planned if the decision is to cancel again in India. 

So could this be another year of assessed or teacher- graded examination results?

The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) has announced it will use the same dual assessment route for exams this summer in recognition of the disruption caused by Covid-19.

In a statement on its website, the IB said although it "strongly believes" exams are the best method for assessing students' learning, it recognises some settings may not be able to sit exams this summer and so past methods used to award results without exams will be required. Where this happens, the IB will use processes that [it has] refined over the course of the pandemic to award grades without exams.  Two years ago schools and students reacted with uproar to an algorithm employed by the IBO to adjust predicted grades and was forced to step back from this approach.

The current process largely involves awarding final grades using internal coursework marks and teacher-submitted predicted grades - something that IB has previously said it believes is the best way to achieve a fair outcome for students.

Whether IB exams will go ahead as planned in the UAE will be dependent on the decision of the Ministry of Education, which last year, at short notice, announced that the IB examinations would not take place in line with the cancellation of both Indian and UK curriculum examinations.

According to the IBO, last year 70 per cent of IB schools worldwide decided to go ahead with exams. The dual route approach was controversial with students, who argued that it was unfair for some students to take exams and not others. Current expectations would appear to be that examinations will go ahead as planned in 2022 in the Emirates.

The IBO has also stated that in light of the impact of the pandemic on students' learning, it will ensure "appropriate grade boundaries will be set to account for the disruption to education" - effectively meaning it will not attempt to start to return to pre-pandemic grade boundaries this year which would have had a significant impact on outcomes given the rise in grades (grade inflation) over the past two years. In 2019, the average IBDP score globally was 29.62. This increased to 31.34 in 2020 and to 33.02 in 2021

In England, the Head of the Department of Education’s regulator OFQUAL has told headteachers that they should use their "own judgement" over whether they need to continue collecting evidence for teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) in case exams are cancelled again this summer.  The UK Exam boards similarly fell foul of the use of an algorithm used to moderate grades submitted by teachers and was forced to back-track.

Dr Jo Saxton wrote that exam contingencies should "help rather than hinder" students' preparation for GCSE and A-level exams this summer. She added: "I encourage you to trust your judgement about whether you have sufficient evidence."

In previous comments on exam preparations in January, Dr. Saxton said there were no plans to "switch off" the Plan B exam contingency measures in case exams have to be cancelled for the third year running because of Covid 19.

As a result, schools have been told by the regulator to carry out mock-style exams throughout the year in case exams are cancelled again in the summer and replaced with Teacher Assessed Grades, although the Education Secretary has insisted that exams will go ahead as planned this year.

Dr Saxton also wrote to students to inform that them that the regulator would publish "videos, infographics and other materials" to help those who have missed the experience of sitting a formal exam due to the pandemic "to know what that feels like."

Advance information on GCSE and A-level exams was also published by exam boards to help focus revision for summer exams, amid concerns that this will still not be sufficient to overcome the disruption to education caused by the pandemic. Subjects for which advance details of the topic areas have been issued include maths, sciences, English, history and geography and are designed to enable students to focus on those areas rather than to revise everything.

Examiners have been asked to be generous when marking exam papers and grade boundaries could be more flexible in some cases, with a lower figure across papers needed to secure a particular grade.

Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi said “Exams are the best and fairest form of assessment, and we firmly intend for them to take place this summer, giving students a fair chance to show what they know. We know students have faced challenges during the pandemic, which is why we've put fairness for them at the forefront of our plans. The information to help with their revision published, as well as the range of other adaptations, will make sure they can do themselves justice in their exams this summer.”

However, with the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson having announced an end to all Covid-19  regulations in England from this week - including those required currently in schools to stem the spread of the virus - should the Education Secretary need to have a change of heart before the exams commence in June, UAE students are also likely to be affected.

The impact of the pandemic still remains a disruptive influence on education for many students at this crucial time in their education.

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