Why exam boards are a ‘Public Good’

by Tim Oates, 21 October 2021
Student taking exam

‘No other nation has exam boards like England’. Easy to say. And it reduces something complex to something which is far too simplistic: an idea that we do things weirdly in England - and the rest of the world does ‘something else’. That’s about the worst possible example of ‘grass is greener’ and ‘over the hedge thinking’.

The thing is - the many nations around the world do things in all sorts of different, and contrasting ways. And if you look at the detail of key nations, and see if they are distinctive, you’d almost certainly wind up saying ‘well...Germany does it like that...and the rest of the world does it differently...’ and the same of Estonia, China, Portugal, Singapore, and so on.

Qualifications as a ‘Public Good’ and the role of England’s exam boards

First of all, it’s important to recognise that qualifications are ‘an agreed Public Good’. They do ‘Public Work’ for young people – recognising their attainment, giving clear targets and expectations. They work for schools – specifying the content of learning programmes and expectations about depth of treatment of topics, giving clear standards. They work for those managing admission to education and selection for employment. And qualifications do ‘Public Work’ for the State – allowing the State to understand the performance of the education system, as well as holding both schools and the State to account for quality and inclusion. Over many decades, exam boards have played a key role in working with schools to establish dependable qualifications - with the express purpose of supporting these vital public functions. They are ‘caretakers’ of these functions, with duties defined by the State and its agencies. At one level the Boards’ role is incredibly practical and technical, at another it’s about supporting fundamental social processes. It’s when we start seeing qualifications as central to key processes in society and economy that we can see that essentially the same thing is done across different nations, albeit in different ways.

How exams are run in other nations around the world

In Finland, the equivalent of A Level exams is run by a national agency - they are a State qualification. In Iceland the university entrance exam is controlled through tight national regulations - making them a state qualification. In Ireland, a national agency runs the exams. In Germany, the crucial Abitur examinations at 18 are administered at the level of the 16 federal subdivisions of Germany, but there has been a lot of discussion of the extent to which there should be commonality across the nation. The USA operates state-based arrangements but then has the increasingly important Advanced Placement examinations which are provided on a pan-national basis by the College Board, a not-for-profit exam board. China has the crucial Gaokao examination - the National College Entrance Examination - which is set and run separately in each province or directly controlled municipality but administered on a uniform basis. It is being reformed through State initiative, with experimental pilot work in Shanghai and Zhejiang.

Common themes of equity, attainment, content and fairness across nations

Simple, eh? Not at all. But look with a critical eye and a set of common themes begin to emerge. Most national governments are concerned about equity: ensuring that all young people have access to a common core of learning. Most national governments are concerned about attainment: ensuring that subjects and outcomes are defined clearly, and that an increasing number of young people reach minimum and ‘stretch’ standards. This means that the State has a view about what should be done in assessment. There is a view about content, and a concern for the effective and fair administration of the exams. We can see in this that there are Public Goods: entitlement of all young people to high quality education, to fair measurement and description of their attainment, and to competent management of all processes. And this competent management needs to extend to other aspects of utility, to ensure that there is not undue workload for schools, that processes are not unduly costly, that processes are secure and sustainable.

If a nation runs external examinations someone, somewhere, needs to oversee standards, organise exam tasks and questions, arrange marking, get papers to the right place at the right time in the right quantity, and produce dependable results. And it’s good if someone somewhere is thinking about the impact on learning, organising staff development and support, and preparing new qualifications when needed. Different, but equally demanding things need to be in place for qualifications based on teacher assessment.

So, exam boards in England – are they that different?

I think that we should see national arrangements like this: in England, exam boards have been asked by the State to run, under the watchful eye of the national regulator, and with public consent, things which in other nations are run by national agencies or government departments. Exam boards in England have been given responsibility for delivering a public good - a responsibility which they take extremely seriously and discharge with huge commitment. They not only run established processes enjoying high public consent, they respond to emergencies and crises, and prepare new systems and qualifications for the future. A lot of what they do is not visible - and I think that causes occasional questions about the role of exam boards. The highly technical processes can be intimidating to non-specialists, and more needs to be done to explain just how much is needed to keep things going and to constantly improve arrangements.

What we do in England is not out of step with what is done in high stakes assessment around the world. Other nations do the same things which we do and are concerned to ensure the same Public Goods are delivered - it’s simply that we divide up the responsibilities in a slightly different way. But actually, when you look at nations in detail, most of them divide things up in subtly different ways - and that’s important for understanding rather than naively attacking our own way of doing things.

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Group Chief Executive, Cambridge Assessment 2018 - 21

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Tim Oates

Group Director of Assessment and Research