Towards a level playing field

Few would object to all young people having fair access to public exams, but there are important considerations in designing access and establishing eligibility for students who require alternative arrangements in exams, says Kevin Woods.

I met a PhD student this week who said: ‘if I hadn’t had extra help in my exams, the extra time and the separate room, I would never have got GCSEs, A-levels, would never have got to university’. She was immensely grateful for the access arrangements which had been available to her in public examinations, and to the professionals who had facilitated them for her. Her reflections were heartening and reminded me that I have not met anyone concerned with the public examination system who does not aspire to provide for our hard working and ambitious young people a ‘level playing field’. There’s an apparently universal commitment to ‘fairness’ in examinations.

At the same time, there are other important considerations. Not least there is the issue of maintaining the standard of the examination, and importantly the perception of that. The validity of the assessment must be preserved to protect the value of the particular award. If a candidate needs twice as long to complete an examination, then it’s important that users of the qualification, such as employers, understand that the final award reflects the same fundamental knowledge, skills and understanding, regardless of the time taken to demonstrate this. Then, there’s the issue of manageability: how much extra time, how many separate rooms, how many readers of examination papers can a school or college feasibly provide? These issues mean that innovations within the system of access arrangements must be carefully managed.  

Two key developmental issues regarding access arrangements are: how we identify who is eligible for them; and what kinds of arrangements or provisions are available. Over the last twenty years as a practitioner and a researcher I’ve watched developments on both issues and was interested to see the Department for Education’s recent intention to commission research on proposed new processes for identifying access arrangements needs in Key Stage 2 national curriculum tests (NCTs).

The proposals involve identification of behavioural indicators for each pupil, such as ‘can persist at a task for at least 15 minutes’. But this demands a high degree of reliability of teacher assessment and does not consider the interaction between the student and the particular NCT tasks on any given occasion. For example, will all NCT tasks in 2013 be completed equally unhindered by all children with no more than 15 minutes of persistence? Might some tasks be completed more successfully by some children in 18 minutes? And if this were so, is the child who only has assessed persistence of 14 minutes and is given 25 per cent extra time, in fact be given an unfair advantage over the child whose persistence was assessed as being at 16 minutes and may be two minutes short of time?

This way of thinking calls into question the evidence base for processes aimed providing the level playing field for examinations, and raises broader questions about the usefulness of relying too heavily upon eligibility criteria in that endeavour. I sometimes wonder what might happen if we said to a group of examinees ‘we think this examination should take about one hour’ and left them to get on with it. Of course, there may be other issues to deal with in that scenario, such as the highly anxious candidate who stays in the examination well beyond the point of being able to gain any real benefit, but then our research has shown that time pressure is a significant source of anxiety for many young people.  I wonder if some such innovative scenarios might actually get us closer, and more easily, to the level playing field to which we aspire.     

Kevin Woods is Professor of Educational and Child Psychology at the University of Manchester.

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