Three Ways to Make National Assessments Fairer

Dr Rhian Barrance outlines an assessment system that enables all children to develop their knowledge, learning and skills to their fullest potential.

This year’s grading fiasco has led to major U-turns by the governments in all UK nations.

The standardisation model used by exam boards and regulators for this year’s GCSEs and A-Levels disproportionately affected students in traditionally low-attaining schools, since schools were allocated grades based on their past performance. 

This has, rightly, raised major questions regarding the fairness of this year’s results, and it is clear that the Government has made the right decision in allowing teacher grades to be used for GCSEs and A-levels. 

However, while the decision to use teacher grades to determine this year’s grades is welcome, this won’t solve the problem for all students. A-Level and GCSE students may still feel disadvantaged if their teacher assessment grades were lower than the marks they generally achieved for assessments during the year.

Currently these students can’t appeal directly to exam boards, and must go through schools – so they are missing out on an important right of redress.

Broader issues of fairness

As well as ensuring that students this year are not disadvantaged, we also need to use this moment to reflect on broader issues of fairness in our qualifications systems. This is important, not just out of a sense of justice, but also because the UK governments have a duty to do so under international human rights legislation, such as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. 

A children’s rights approach to assessment ensures that the best interests of children are at the forefront in any decisions about assessment and qualifications; that tests are not biased against any particular groups of students, and that children are given meaningful opportunities to participate in decisions. Importantly, the assessment system should enable all children to develop their knowledge, learning and skills to their fullest potential.

Three ways we can make national assessments fairer


1. Listen to students’ views and experiences, and take them into account

Students have a right to have their views taken into account in all decisions that affect them. Assessments have a major impact on their lives and future opportunities, and so students’ views must be considered on reforms to qualifications. 

This is also important as students’ perspectives are an essential source of evidence for how assessment and qualifications are enacted in practice. For example, research on students’ experiences of undertaking controlled assessments in schools in Northern Ireland and Wales has shown that there was a major variation in how students experienced the assessments in different settings. While written assessments for English and History should take place in silence under teacher supervision, some students reported that they found it difficult to concentrate because of disruption from other pupils. 

Students also reported vast differences in the amount of support they received from teachers, parents and tutors with preparation – with some students even indicating that they memorised essays used by others for the assessments. 

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 views and experiences of young people.

2. Allow university places to be allocated based on actual grades, not predicted grades

As this year has shown, we need to consider the consequences of assessment while assessing their fairness. While numerous students would have missed out on university places had the government not reversed its decision, the system in place for allocating university places currently is not fair for all students. Currently, teachers’ predicted grades, rather than their actual grades, are used by students to apply to university – these offers are confirmed if students meet their predicted grades. 

This is problematic as recent research shows that high attaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be predicted more pessimistic grades than their peers. These students are thus less likely to apply to the most competitive courses, and are often over-qualified for the courses they are do enrol on. Using students actual grades, rather than their predicted grades, would make the system fairer. 

Innovative. Informed. Independent.
Your support can help us make Wales better.

3. Stop using tiers which restricting students’ attainment and learning

Another way in which students from disadvantaged backgrounds lose out is through their allocation to different tiers at the beginning of GCSE courses. Currently, for most subjects that are tiered at GCSE, there are two tiers of exam paper – the higher tier, which provides students with access to A*-D/E grades, and the foundation tier, which is designed to be less challenging than the higher paper but only allows students to achieve grades in the ranges of C-G. 

This means that the grades of students taking foundation tier have been capped two years before they even sit their final exams. These students cannot achieve above a C, however well they perform in the exam. This doesn’t just cap their attainment, but their learning too. Students entered into the foundation tier are taught a restricted curriculum, and this makes moving between tiers very difficult.

Tiering can also reinforce existing inequalities – teachers’ perceptions and expectations of groups can affect students’ likelihood of being allocated to the foundation tier. What’s worse is that recent research shows that students often don’t understand the grade ranges on tiers, and the extent to which their attainment was capped by them. 

Fair testing for all

It is very difficult to design assessment systems that are fair to all pupils, as shown during this year’s grading fiasco, which appears to be caused by a system that prioritised inter-cohort fairness at the expense of fairness to individuals and groups.

However, there are some simple steps that we can take to ensure that educational assessment is as fair as possible. We must ensure that the system does not systematically disadvantage any groups of students. Any approaches that are used must be child-centred, and focus on enabling students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Dr Rhian Barrance is a lecturer in education at Cardiff University.

Also within Politics and Policy