Exams at 16 are more common than thought

view from the back of a hall of students taking an exam

New research published today shows that external assessment at the end of basic secondary education is more common than is often claimed.

A study by Cambridge Assessment’s Irenka Suto and Tim Oates into Repeatedly High Performing Jurisdictions (RHPJs) around the world found that two out of three use external assessment at the end of basic secondary education, either exclusively or in addition to internal assessment.

In addition to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the list of external assessment users at age 16 includes four other European RHPJs: the Republic of Ireland, Poland, Estonia, and Belgium’s French-speaking community. Beyond Europe, the list includes China’s Beijing, Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces, Singapore, South Korea, Ontario in Canada, and the Russian Federation.

In many of these RHPJs, external assessment plays a critical role in determining students’ directions in upper secondary education – just as in England, Wales and Northern Ireland where GCSEs will help students choose which A Level subjects to take, or maybe whether to pursue a vocational route. In addition, in many of these RHPJs, external assessment was found to play a critical role in providing students with qualifications in subjects that they might not study again – so just like in England, where a student might choose to specialise in the arts at A Level they have nonetheless been given a solid grounding and formal qualifications in maths and science, courtesy of the GCSEs they took.

The researchers also found no evidence to suggest that abandoning assessment at the end of basic secondary education - or not adopting it in the first place - was associated with higher student performances at system level. They also examined concerns about using assessment at the end of basic secondary education for the secondary purpose of accountability, concluding that England is not unique in this respect. Repeat high performers such as Estonia and Shanghai also do so.

The report, ‘High stakes testing after basic secondary education: How and why is it done in high performing education systems,’ builds on and updates an international review, ‘Are claims that GCSE is a white elephant, red herrings?’ (Elliott, Rushton, Darlington & Child, 2015), commissioned in 2014 by Tim Oates.

Tim said: “The aim of this new report is to bring clarity to the global situation so that everyone who is engaging in the debate about the future of education can base their views on facts rather than assertions.

“Overall, we provide an evidence-based argument that when it comes to high stakes testing at age 16, England, Wales and Northern Ireland are by no means atypical. Our approach to assessment is, in fact, strikingly similar to the approaches of many countries and other jurisdictions whose educational achievements are most admired.”

Irenka said: “Our conclusions cohere with literature on the need to appreciate the complexity and context of national education systems and to understand relationships across components when considering change. Importing changes is no guarantee to securing a perfect education system and there is no reason to believe that internal assessment is a panacea. It is essential to focus instead on coherence across elements such curriculum, pedagogy and assessment.”

Research Matters

Research Matters 28: Autumn 2019

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.