Exams and assessment – what happens in the 34 OECD countries?

Janet Downs's picture
Examinations and assessment are hot topics at the moment. It’s perhaps time to look at what happens in member countries of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

National examinations are summative (they measure performance at the end of a stage of education). Assessment is formative (it’s used as feedback for evaluation and to inform teaching).

No other OECD country places such a burden on 16 year-olds. English, Welsh and Northern Irish pupils are the most examined in OECD countries. 16 of the 34 OECD countries have no exams at all at 16. Those with exams at 16+ generally limit the number to between 2 and 5.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, pupils take GCSEs or equivalent in far more than five subjects. The EBacc performance measure (England only) currently comprises 6 subjects: English, Maths, foreign language, 2 sciences and history or geography. Computer studies will be added as an EBacc subject later. Added to this are optional GCSE subjects.

It seems that the Government and others are incapable of believing that a subject can be studied without also being examined. Education secretary Michael Gove has actually said that if something can’t be externally assessed then it’s play. He wasn’t thinking about formative assessment when he made that remark. He was referring to end-of-course written tests.

The OECD has warned there is excessive emphasis on national examination results in England and this can have negative consequences.

The Government believes that making exam data available to the media is an important part of accountability. But “publication” as described by the OECD doesn’t mean a wide dissemination of the information. It can mean restricting the publication of exam data to a small section of people such as school administrators, parents and pupils.

Only 8 countries shared exam data with the media. In England, this sharing leads to frenzy. Schools which lead league tables are praised while schools at the bottom are “named and shamed” with no account made of circumstances or the academic quality of their intake. In 2011, the Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) found that a school’s results are governed by the academic quality of its pupils. Raw exam results, therefore, were an unreliable indicator of the quality of education offered in a school, the IFS said.

When the Government says that its exam reforms will bring England up to the standard of the world’s best, the evidence suggests that Gove’s “more rigorous” GCSEs will do nothing of the sort. Instead, they will ensure that English pupils continue to carry a far heavier burden of testing than is common in other countries. At the same time the reformed exams will impede the development of a truly world-class exam system – one that allows pupils of all abilities to graduate from school at 18 via multiple pathways comprising academic and vocational exams; community service; participation in sport, clubs and societies; involvement in activities such as Young Enterprise and Duke of Edinburgh Award; artistic and creative work; work experience and extended projects.

Other countries are moving in this direction – England is being left behind.

Note: The statistics which inform this post are in the faq above What are the examination and assessment systems in OECD countries?

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