Risk in the exam system

11 October 2012

More than 120 experts from within the education and assessment community, as well as speakers from beyond these fields, gathered at Cambridge Assessment’s 6th biennial conference in Cambridge on 10 October 2012 to consider the principles of risk and how they might apply in assessment and qualification systems.

Isabel Nisbet, former Ofqual Chief Executive and now of Cambridge International Examinations, and Mick Walker, former Executive Director of Education at the Qualifications and Curriculum Development Agency, considered lessons learned from the national curriculum testing crisis of 2008.

Ms Nisbet focused on delivery failures and the prevention of them. She also raised concerns about the pace of proposed changes in the exam system, explaining that top-down system changes in education take at least 15 years to settle.

Her concerns were echoed by the current exams regulator, Glenys Stacey, who warned about the pace of changes planned for England's exams system. "Reform... it's risky isn't it. Some assessment experts will tell you ...it takes five years to deliver [fundamental reforms] and 15 years or even longer to bed in. Politicians have much shorter time frames in mind." She said ways needed to be found that did not put ministers' policy development at risk but did not threaten the future of students either. The Ofqual chief also addressed risks in the delivery of qualifications and to standards.

The relationship between risk communication and regulation was discussed by keynote speakers Professor Alastair Scotland, former Director of the National Clinical Assessment Service, and Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, Director of the King’s Centre for Risk Management, King’s College London. Both stated that a simpler, clearer, more effective and more accountable regulatory landscape together with transparent communication helps to build trust and minimises risk.

Communication and the need for a greater understanding of the reality of our examinations system was also addressed by Group Chief Executive of Cambridge Assessment, Simon Lebus. In his opening speech, Mr Lebus said: “We operate in a modern consumer culture where zero tolerance of error sits side by side with the expectation of maximum levels of choice and personalisation. For example there were 21,672 possible combinations of texts in one of the English literature specifications replaced by the new English GCSE this summer, making it theoretically possible for every candidate in effect to have their own unique specification. Our challenge in this very exacting climate, and while subject to high degrees of external scrutiny, is to try to identify what we can do to reduce error at both system and candidate level and to understand the extent of risk that it is acceptable for a system designed to meet these high and sometimes contradictory expectations we are exposed to.”

Other panellists included: Michelle Meadows, AQA; Amanda Spielman chair of Ofqual; Russell Hobby, National Association of Head Teachers; Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment; and David Skelton, Policy Exchange.

The conference was hosted by the Cambridge Assessment Network which was established to help assessment professionals keep up to date with the latest thinking in assessment, allowing them to share ideas with like-minded people as part of an international community of practice. Find out more about the programme of Continuing Professional Development and Dialogue.