‘The need to review approaches to assessment’ – a reflection on TAGs

Hugh Stephens, Head of Geography at St. Edward’s School in Oxford reflects on the TAG process and lessons learnt.

The cancellation of public exams for the second summer in a row once again has placed teachers in an unenviable position having to determine exam grades for students.

While far from perfect, national exams offer a level of fairness, where all candidates sit the same paper at the same time, marked and graded by professional assessment specialists. The near-impossible task of replicating this national system of assessment has fallen largely to classroom teachers in schools.

Fundamentally, the ambition of this process has been to achieve fairness to students following last year’s failed algorithm application. Having collected evidence and awarded grades, teachers will very likely have achieved this within their schools. While DfE guidance deliberately offered flexibility to allow education providers to cope with the ongoing effects of the pandemic, it has led to divergence in its application, and consequently reliability, between providers. Grade inflation is inevitable where teachers issuing grades do not have knowledge of the broader national grading landscape and where the JCQ quality assurance process is so narrow in scope, only sampling a selection of students in very few subjects from each education provider.

Teachers of exam classes have taken on significant assessment loads and have had to exercise caution in their use of language in feedback, so as not to compromise the TAG process. It is inherent in teachers to want children to continuously improve so they can perform at their very best, by providing them with an indication of their current level of achievement and offering guidance for improvement through a combination of formative and summative assessment. It could be argued this is the cornerstone of what education is, which the TAG process has interrupted by removing the ability of teachers to discuss performance and achievement with students.

Forcing students through rounds of assessment solely to determine exam grades is not education. The process of producing TAGs is rightly provoking national reflection on the dominance of terminal public exams in determining student outcomes. Education is about continuous improvement and reflection, facilitated through dialogue between student and teacher. Arguably, simply assessing through exams, or worse TAGs, fails to measure the success of this process. Of course, exams can still be useful and are well suited to improving memory and knowledge retention, however, we expect our education system to deliver much more than simply this and produce young people equipped to become good citizens and socially responsible change-makers. We must consider as education professionals how we can use assessment to measure more of what matters to us in education.

At St Edward’s School, we have recently reduced the number of GCSEs taken by our students, attempting to offer an education that accounts for and rewards the development of a wider range of skills and aptitudes including creativity, collaboration, research and self-management. Students are assessed continuously in a variety of styles over courses lasting two years, contributing towards the final grade, with the quality assurance provided by a higher education institution. Assessment tasks offer significant variation, from Harkness discussions to research projects and reflective logs. The aim is to measure more of what matters and deliver fairer, more reliable judgements regarding students’ capabilities. Similar approaches could reduce the intensity of assessment created by TAGs, and terminal exams more generally, providing greater engagement from students and teachers alike.

Addressing the problems created by TAGs and high-stakes assessment in education in England more broadly will require creative thinking on the part of education professionals. The ultimate goal to secure the best outcomes for our children must surely be to align assessment more closely with the core purpose of education.