Written evidence submitted by Cambridge Assessment
Education Committee Inquiry
The impact of COVID-19 on education and children’s services
Submission from Cambridge Assessment
Background: Cambridge Assessment
- Cambridge Assessment is a not-for-profit international exams and education services group that designs and delivers assessments to over 8 million learners in over 170 countries (see below). Established by the University of Cambridge in 1858, we have an unrivalled depth of experience in national education systems, international education and English language learning. Our qualifications and standards are underpinned by the largest research capability of its kind in Europe. We are committed to ensuring all learners access the benefits of their education through a fair and accurate assessment of their skills, knowledge and understanding. A philosophy of fairness and integrity runs through everything we do. While we are an international organisation, we restrict our comments here to those qualifications offered to school-age students in the UK, including those provided by our exam boards OCR and Cambridge Assessment International Education.
Cambridge Assessment group includes:
- OCR is a leading UK awarding body, providing GCSEs and A Levels in over 40 subjects and offering more than 450 vocational qualifications.
- Cambridge Assessment International Education qualifications are recognised by the world’s best universities and employers, giving students a wide range of options in their education and career.
- The Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring is one of the largest and longest established providers of formative assessments for children of all ages, from early years to post 16, used by educational professionals in over 70 countries.
- This submission covers issues relating to awarding general and vocational qualifications in 2020 and the arrangements which we believe should be in place for summer 2021.
- The Covid-19 crisis has halted exams in the UK as it has done in most countries around the world. While the decision to cancel exams here involved urgent and careful consideration, the scale of action needed to design, put in place and operationalise alternatives means of awarding has been huge. This work, and the costs associated with it, are in addition to the significant time, effort and resource already expended on advance preparation for the Summer 2020 series.
- The challenge faced by exam boards here in the UK is not just to provide a mechanism for awarding a whole range of different qualifications in the absence of, often, the primary means of assessment, but to do so in a way that schools, students, parents and others can have confidence that the results provide a basis for progression and selection.
- The combined assessment expertise of exam boards such as ours, along with the regulator, Ofqual, has been focussed on developing effective approaches for awarding thousands of qualifications quickly and at a time of extraordinary disruption to everyday working.
- Our ability to design and implement such approaches reflects the very mature examination system in England. It means we have at our disposal a deep and rich set of historical data that can be consulted in these unexpected circumstances. This information, when combined with the professional judgements of teachers, and other data for some vocational and technical qualifications, will enable us to build with confidence a picture of the overall grade distribution. In other words, the existence of previous exams has enabled the special contingency measures being adopted this year.
- While no means of awarding grades this summer can match the way exams measure performance, the adopted approaches, including statistical standardisation of teacher judgements for GCSEs, AS/A Levels, other general qualifications and many vocational and technical qualifications, are the fairest for all students in the circumstances.
- We believe that the vast majority of students will recognise the grades they are awarded this summer to be a fair reflection of their likely performance in their exams. For those who don’t feel that way, or for whatever reason are not able to receive a result this summer, there are safeguards, in the form of opportunities to sit exams in the future or to appeal their result. As an overall package, this is very best response that is possible given the circumstances and time frame in which we are operating.
- It is essential to also realise that our response cannot and will not end this summer. Very intensive diagnostic work will need to be undertaken at an individual level when students return to school to understand any learning gaps, and teachers will need support to complete this. The response to this loss of learning needs to be concerted and multi-faceted – the solution cannot be as straightforward as statistically compensating students following ‘normal’ or ‘modified’ exams in summer 2021, which would dilute standards. Rather, a major part of forward policy action will need to be tackling these learning gaps at an individual school and college level, which should include significant effort to identify and utilise existing and new opportunities for how and when students can catch up on lost learning.
Inquiry topic 1:
‘The effect of cancelling formal exams, including the fairness of qualifications awarded and pupils’ progression to the next stage of education or employment’
Awarding in summer 2020
Summary outline of approach being adopted for GCSEs, A Levels, other general qualifications, and vocational and technical qualifications in the UK
- OCR has been working closely with Ofqual in the design of the alternative approaches being adopted for awarding this summer. Where suitable, OCR is using the same process of ‘standardised centre assessment’ for its vocational and technical qualifications as for GCSEs, A Levels and other general qualifications. In simple terms, teachers will use evidence and their judgement to grade every student entered in each subject in their school or college. These are the grades teachers feel students would be most likely to have achieved if they had sat their exams and completed any non-exam assessment. Teachers will also rank their students in each grade by expected attainment, from those most likely to attain each grade down to those who are less secure at that grade. Exam boards will then use additional data to ‘standardise’ these teacher rank order judgements and relate them to a national standard; the final grades will be issued by exam boards. In effect, this means exam boards will look at prior attainment of student cohorts in previous assessments and the past results of individual schools and colleges. As a result, the grades produced by some schools and colleges may be adjusted upwards or downwards depending on how severe or generous they are compared to others. The ability of exam boards to be able to ensure a level playing field in this way is only possible because of the way assessment has been conducted in this country in the past, which has provided a deep and rich set of historical data that can be consulted in these unexpected circumstances.
- Broadly the same approach is being adopted by Cambridge Assessment International Education for its general qualifications (including Cambridge IGCSE® and Cambridge Pre-U), which are taken by some UK-based students.
- Irrespective of the nature of the approach, and consistent with Ofqual guidance, our thinking is driven by how we can support student progression. While it is possible that we will not be able to make awards to some students this summer, they will all have an opportunity to sit their exams, should they choose to do so, in due course.
Summary of awarding approaches; Summer 2020
Cambridge Assessment International Education
GCSEs, A Levels and other general qualifications
Vocational and technical qualifications
Cambridge IGCSE®, Cambridge Pre-U and other international qualifications
How will grades be awarded in summer 2020?
Standardised centre assessment, based on grades and rank orders provided by teachers, and exam board data about prior cohort and centre performance.
Standardised centre assessment where suitable.
Standardised centre assessment, based on grades and rank orders provided by teachers, and exam board data about prior centre performance.
Will there be an appeals process?
Will there be an emergency exam series?
Yes, the details of the autumn series are being carefully considered.
Many vocational and technical qualifications are assessed on a rolling basis, so there is no need for an additional exam series. Additional assessments this autumn will be considered for some qualifications.
A November series already exists, and exams in additional specifications are being carefully considered
(eg Cambridge Pre-U)
Declaration by the head of centre about the authenticity and rigour of grades proposed?
How will fairness be achieved?
- The usual methods of assessing a student’s performance in OCR and Cambridge Assessment International Education qualifications have been carefully informed by our leading research capability. Any deviation from these usual methods has the potential to impact ‘fairness’ to some extent. Our challenge, alongside Ofqual and other exam boards, has been to develop alternative approaches to awarding that:
- provide students with the grades that they would most likely have achieved had they been able to take their assessments in summer 2020;
- enable the maximum number of students to receive grades this summer, recognising that there may be advantages for some to take their assessments at a future point;
- protect, as far as is possible, students from being systematically advantaged or disadvantaged, notwithstanding their socio-economic background or whether they have a protected characteristic;
- use the best data available, while minimising burden on schools and colleges and recognising there are implications for teacher safety in gathering and discussing submissions; and
- are sufficiently transparent.
- We are fortunate that we have a very mature examination system in England, which means we have at our disposal information about how individual students have performed in previous formal assessments and about how specific school and college cohorts have typically performed over time.
- This information, where available, alongside the professional judgements of teachers, and other data for some vocational and technical qualifications, will enable us to have a good degree of confidence about how they would have performed this summer.
- In developing our response, we have:
- ensured access and equality issues are a top priority in our discussions with Ofqual.
- ensured students who are taking similar qualifications will not be treated differently, either because they are in a different country, school system, or entered through a different exam board.
- ensured as many students can certificate this summer as possible, including by providing private candidates with access to alternative centres that are well placed to make a judgement about their likely performance.
- ensured schools and colleges are familiar with the risks of unconscious bias and how this might be minimised (though we cannot say for certain that it will not be present to some degree in the system) – declarations by Heads of Centre will help to reinforce this aspect.
- explored how atypical students or cohorts should be treated.
- recognised the specific needs of some students when considering adaptations to certain vocational and technical qualification exams.
- supported the independence of teachers against inappropriate attempts by parents or other individuals to influence the rank order or grades of a student, which should be regarded as malpractice.
- responded to situations where there may be varying amounts of information at a candidate-level to ensure there is sufficient evidence to make an informed judgement.
- ensured students have access to alternative exam series, reflecting existing availability and the risk and potential harm to students of entering any subsequent exam series.
- The grades students receive are highly dependent on the professional judgement of teachers. Forms of bias which are not present in formal examination series may be present this year. We can do our best to identify and correct leniency and harshness in relation to the national standard, but we cannot remove certain forms of bias. This is an important limitation of the model that must be recognised.
- The statistical standardisation of professional judgements using historical evidence of centre performance and, where available, the prior attainment of students is the fairest for all students given the exceptional circumstances of a summer without exams. The approach has been publicly endorsed by senior school and college leaders. As influential bodies such as yours debate and reflect on the actions taken this summer, we would urge caution in generalising about specific interventions that might have been possible for individual students this year, and in relation to assessment more generally in this country in the future.
How will pupil progression be ensured?
- We are working closely with Ofqual to make sure that, as far as possible, pupils are not disadvantaged in their progression to sixth form, college, university, apprenticeships, training or work because of these unprecedented circumstances. For students progressing to university, we are working with higher education institutions and their representative bodies to explain how results will be awarded on the basis of professional judgements and historical evidence.
What don’t we know at this time?
- The decision to cancel exams involved urgent and carefully-considered discussion. By contrast, the scale of the action needed to design, put in place and operationalise the necessary alternatives to exams has been very significant. The combined assessment expertise of the exam boards, along with the regulator, Ofqual, has been focussed on developing effective approaches quickly and at a time of extraordinary disruption to everyday working. There are some aspects of our response that still require some detailed evaluation, in some cases with Ofqual. These include:
- the details of how the exam series for GCSEs and A Levels will run this autumn;
- the relative weight that is placed on centre assessment grades and previous centre performance in the model in certain circumstances, such as for small centres and low entry subjects;
- whether there should be provision for a school or college to ask an exam board to review the data it used for standardisation (after results have been issued) because of a significant change to its demographic make-up.
- When results are published, we would encourage all stakeholders to consider carefully their response. In particular, we believe that higher education institutions should consider how they might best accommodate the needs of student progression in the first instance, rather than students have to consider appealing their result or entering an autumn or summer exam series if they fall short of what they had hoped to achieve. Some options will simply not be practical for some students, and therefore the more that all stakeholders are prepared to extend understanding and support through their own approaches in the interests of this cohort, the better.
How might we judge what ‘success’ looks like in summer 2020?
- In any ‘normal’ year, we would, in general terms, consider a successful exam series to reflect the prompt awarding of accurate results. Confidence in the results reflects the well-established and robust assessment procedures that have been, and should continue to be, employed in the UK.
- This summer we are developing alternative approaches to awarding that are as fair as they can be for most students, including for those in previous and subsequent years. There is no perfect solution given the exceptional circumstances of a summer without exams. So for those students who have concerns, or for whatever reason are not able to receive a result this summer, there will be opportunities for them to sit an exam at a future time. It will be important for students to have access to good advice from schools and universities – to guide them into effective choices in the case of disappointment, and to help guard their mental health.
- As an overall package, this is the very best response that is possible given the circumstances and time frame in which we are operating.
- Naturally we will conduct a comprehensive review of the way the series works in due course. Some of this will produce insights quickly – such as how many pupils got into universities of their choice – and others will require more time.
Summer 2021 and beyond
- Across the UK, students will be impacted in a variety of ways and to different extents by the loss of classroom learning this academic year. Very intensive diagnostic work will need to be undertaken at an individual level when students return to school to understand any gaps, and teachers will need support to complete this. The response to this loss of learning needs to be concerted and multi-faceted – it cannot be as straightforward as statistically compensating students following ‘normal’ or ‘modified’ exams in summer 2021, which would dilute standards. Rather, a major part of forward policy action will need to be tackling these learning gaps at an individual school and college level, which should include significant effort to identify and utilise existing and new opportunities for how and when students can catch up on lost learning.
- The hiatus in learning is likely to have had the following impacts:
- Unpredictable gaps in learning – pupils in different schools have the curriculum in subjects sequenced in different ways. There will be little commonality in the areas now missing. For individual pupils, their personal interests will have encouraged a different balance in their focus on topics and subjects. For example, those who dislike maths will have preferentially ignored it in favour of areas in which they are more interested. Students in more disrupted or chaotic households will have been interrupted in different ways, again leading to unpredictable gaps. In addition, different schools are approaching home tuition in very many different ways – increasing the uneven nature of gaps.
- Growth of inequality – differences by social background are likely to increase significantly.
- Loss of ‘learning habit’ – Ruth Deakin Crick’s work shows that good learning habits are vital, and these can decay rapidly over relatively short periods, with contextual pressures having a significant impact (eg loss of direct supervision and encouragement by teachers, absence of peer models of exemplary learning, the attraction of distractions such as films, games etc). Regaining learning habit can be hard.
- Consolidated misconceptions – not only are pupils missing out on exposure to content, they are missing out on immediate correction of misconceptions (through discussion, Q&A etc). These can be demanding to diagnose and difficult to remediate – remedy requires focussed close questioning and diagnostic techniques.
- Mental health – the causation is complex, with emotional disorder both being a cause and an effect of failure to learn in contexts outside school. Some pupils are becoming very distressed at losing periods in school (‘…my parents shout at me to work but offer no help’; ‘my parents try to help but just confuse me’) and this will not necessarily subside when they return; periods of intense stress can have lasting effects.
- All of this suggests two things: the effects will pan out at the individual level, and very intensive diagnostic and support work will need to be undertaken. The response cannot simply be a question of how to adjust exams next year. Not least, this could be misinterpreted by schools and pupils as exams will be ‘easier’ next year, which could seriously affect national standards and student progression.
- Rather, direct compensatory and remedial actions need to be taken by colleges and schools. These could take the form of:
- additional time found in the calendar for direct teacher support, by utilising free study or non-subject focussed periods of activity that are often encountered at the end of the academic year.
- reducing the number of subjects studied at GCSE, to a maximum of 9 from the current average of 10+. Consideration could be given to designating certain subjects as ‘core’ (such as maths, English and science).
- We, along with other exam boards, can play our part by supporting schools in preparing students and in helping to close learning gaps. This can include higher levels of supply of on-line diagnostic and formative assessment, such as through our Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring, the provision of on-line learning tightly linked to qualification content, and additional professional development for teachers.
Inquiry topic 2:
‘The financial implications of closures for providers [(including higher education and independent training providers), pupils and families]’
- Questions have rightly been asked about whether exam boards will reimburse school and colleges some of the cost of exams this summer, given the potential for savings, the majority of which relate to marking and moderation processes.
- OCR and Cambridge Assessment International Education have both committed to pass on savings to schools and colleges. There remains uncertainty at this point about the full costs that we will incur, which we outline below, and this will necessarily influence the overall amount that we as a Group can reimburse.
- The Committee should note that we cannot discuss common action with other exam boards in this area because of competition rules, and this means that we may see different actions across different boards.
Additional costs and savings
- The unexpected circumstances we are facing have required us to significantly reprioritise and divert efforts to those activities needed to deliver student grades this summer. Our primary focus is on supporting teachers and students and securing public confidence in the processes we are putting in place. Our plans are necessarily evolving day-by-day, given the volume of qualifications and the individual circumstances of candidates that we are considering. The costs attached to these activities are not easy to identify, but include:
- the costs associated with the build of a new IT platform, which will vary depending on the qualifications, to capture the data from schools and colleges (centre assessment grades and rank orders), as well as to collate, analyse and issue results. These activities are near completion, but the full costs are very substantial and not yet known at the time of writing.
- the costs of adapting our systems and processes where we decide to adapt existing qualification rules to allow for results to be issued this summer. This may require changes to content, rules of combinations, or to assessments to allow this to happen. Some qualifications would have required visiting centres, for which a remote solution needs to be developed. The costs incurred by centres or us will not be known until the requirements and solution have been defined.
- the scope of the autumn series, including any vocational and technical qualifications.
- There is the potential for some of these costs to be very large. We have already incurred some setting and printing costs associated with the summer series, but no dispatch costs. If some of the intended June series papers can be used for the autumn series, there will be an opportunity to defer some of these costs to next year, but this will include some additional rework costs to content and subsequent reprinting.
Payments to assessors
- We use thousands of examiners each summer to mark for us. Most of our examiners are teachers, for whom marking is a secondary form of income. While some examiners have continued business critical work in recent months, and have been paid as usual, Cambridge Assessment has made payments to protect the income of others to ensure that the exam system can continue to function effectively in the future. Where eligible, Cambridge Assessment examiners have received either a one-off ex gratia payment of £250, or a payment through the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, reflecting 80% of their expected earnings.
Inquiry topic 3:
‘What contingency planning can be done to ensure the resilience of the sector in case of any future national emergency’
- The exam boards and Ofqual maintain a detailed contingency plan for disruption to exams in the UK, but nobody internationally contemplated a global cancellation of exams or anticipated the implications of not holding them. We are in the midst of this event and actively refining our response; undoubtedly there will be lessons to be learned.
- One key area will be to continue the development of high-quality, digital learning. We have made great progress on this at Cambridge Assessment, and have seen significant interest in the broad online support we have offered schools and colleges through the period that they have been closed. We also recognise that additional resilience could be built through further investment in digital delivery of exams and exam processing.
- We also know that as students return to school it will be important for teachers to use formative assessment and diagnostic tests, such as those provided by our Centre for Evaluation Monitoring, to identify gaps in student learning, and provide individual feedback and remedial support. The availability of such tests, along with the historical data we have available from them and our well-established means of assessing school-age students in our high-stakes system, means the UK is well-placed to understand the necessary policy responses and, importantly, to implement them quickly to best avoid further disruption in future years.
 For example, Association of School and College Leaders: 3 April 2020
 For example, an online course produced by Cambridge Assessment English that has helped thousands of English language teachers to transfer their skills to the online environment won a top innovation
award from the British Council in late 2019.