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Scotland ‘can assess exam fairness in reform following Covid-19 pandemic’

Education experts have said the Scottish Government can learn lessons on exam equity following the Covid-19 pandemic (Niall Carson/PA)
Education experts have said the Scottish Government can learn lessons on exam equity following the Covid-19 pandemic (Niall Carson/PA)

The coronavirus pandemic has given Scotland an opportunity to consider how equitable exams are, leading education experts have said.

Specialists from the International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) visited Edinburgh to understand how Scotland is moving out of the pandemic.

Scotland’s approach to exams will be reformed following an independent review from the Organisation for Co-operation and Development, which said too much emphasis was placed on final year tests.

The Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) will be scrapped as part of the reform – however exams will not be scrapped altogether, the Scottish Government has said.

With exams cancelled during the Covid-19 pandemic – as a result of mass school closures and remote learning – grades were determined on coursework and continuous assessments.

But pupils sitting this year have returned to the traditional format run by the SQA.

The ICEA, established in 2016, advises ministers on how best to achieve excellence and equity in education.

Advisers also met with Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville to discuss progress following the pandemic.

Now, Professor Allison Skerrett, director of education at Texas University in Austin – and ICEA adviser, said the Scottish Government can use the disruptions to education to assess whether exams are the fairest way to grade pupils.

“Like other nations, Scotland has been sort of forced or compelled to reconsider the role of examinations during the pandemic,” she said.

“It is important to continue to think about the role and purpose of examinations. It is absolutely tied to equity.

“Examinations are often thought about in terms of what opportunities the students have, what opportunities the students have access to or they’re barred from depending on their performance on an exam.

Exam results in Scotland
Scottish Education Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville has committed to reforming the exam system – but not removing exams altogether (Jane Barlow/PA)

“This moment serves as an opportunity to really think about the role of examinations in providing equity of access.”

It follows comments from Larry Flanagan, general secretary of the Educational Institute for Scotland (EIS) earlier this month, who said the “high stakes exam system” is “inherently” inequitable”.

Ms Skerrett continued: “My view is that this moment, for Scotland, and for other nations in the world, provides an opportunity to really think more deeply about the role of examinations.

“Are they really serving the purpose we want them to serve when thinking about a landscape of opportunity for all learners.”

Pasi Sahlberg, Finnish scholar and Professor at the University of New South Wales, in Australia, added that if Scotland continues towards the move to standardised assessments, both pupils and teachers could have a better idea of what works.

The advisers also discussed the need for Ms Somerville to define what they are trying to fix when tackling the attainment gap.

With issues such as wellbeing, poverty and achievement tied to pupil performance, the government will struggle to meet their 2026 target of closing the attainment gap without this clarity, Professor Sahlberg said.

He said: “If we are not clear about what this achievement gap is, what we’re trying to close, it’s going to be very difficult in 2026 or anytime in the future to say whether we have been able to [close the gap].”

He added: “Often if we just focus on the achievement gap, it still assumes and accepts that there will be some who do not [achieve a certain level of knowledge or skill].

“And then we failed them and for me that’s not equitable.

Ms Somerville, earlier this month, said she was very keen to learn lessons from the pandemic, particularly when looking at exam reform and emphasised she was “determined to deliver change”.

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