A former chief executive of Ofqual discusses what fairness looks likeby Isabel Nisbet / September 29, 2020 / Leave a comment
This summer’s cancellation of exams (GCSEs, A levels and their equivalents) and subsequent confusion over the awarding of grades was widely described as a “fiasco.” Students, whose learning had been disrupted for months because of lockdown, had a bruising experience as the grading policies changed. We know that, in aggregate, the grades eventually awarded were much higher than would be expected in normal times.
No one knows whether it will be practicable—or safe—to run a programme of national exams next summer. In these circumstances is it fair to expect students to prepare for exams which may not happen? Would any alternative to exams be fairer? Is it time to reconsider whether exams such as GCSEs are really needed at all?
The first point to make in answer to all these questions may be obvious, but is no less important for that: it depends what you mean by “fair.”
In my new book with Stuart Shaw, written pre-lockdown but relevant to the debates about this summer and next, we distinguish several senses of “fair” that are all potentially relevant to assessment. One of these is relational fairness—treating (relevantly) like cases alike. That means applying the same criteria when assessing all candidates and not treating them differently based on irrelevant considerations like their school type or their social background.
Relational fairness can be judged at different levels. An exam in which economically disadvantaged students have poorer outcomes than those of their richer contemporaries may be technically fair in many senses—for example, it may have been scrutinised to avoid bias in the test questions—but the outcomes may be unfair at a higher level, because they reflect unjust inequalities in society.
Another relevant meaning of “fair” is whether an outcome is deserved. If, for any reason, a student doesn’t get the grade that his or her work deserves, that seems unfair. This concern lies behind many of the distressing personal accounts we heard when students received their results this summer.
Something can be fair in some respects and unfair in others. Traditional exams are often thought of—perhaps uncritically—as a paradigm of fairness, but teachers know that there are some students who shine in that form of assessment and others who do not, and respond better to coursework or continuous assessment.
Further, some aspects of fairness may be judged to…