Exams and assessments in COVID-19 crisis: fairness at the centre

With the end of the academic year fast approaching in many countries, one question is on the mind of every student, parent, teacher and minister: what about exams as school closures are prolonged?

The fourth UNESCO COVID-19 Education Webinar, organized on 9 April 2020, shed light on the coping strategies that countries have adopted or are considering to manage high-stake exams – these include intermediate, school leaving and university entrance exams as well as gateways for jobs.

Opening the webinar that attracted more than 230 participants, Mr Borhene Chakroun, Director of the Division of Policies and Lifelong Learning Systems at UNESCO, recalled that prolonged school closures have major implications for learning, assessments, and credentials. “These considerations are among top priorities for all policymakers. The interruption of exams is delaying decisions on student progression and graduation, and in the case of technical and vocational training and higher education, affecting their access to labor markets, carrying individual and broader socio-economic impact.”

Different contexts, different strategies

Referring to UNESCO’s recent rapid global analysis, Mr Gwang-Chol Chang, Chief of Section of Education Policy, indicated that 58 out of 84 surveyed countries had postponed or rescheduled  exams, 23 introduced alternative methods such as online or home-based testing, 22 maintained exams while in 11 countries, they were cancelled altogether. Mr Chang pointed to common challenges emerging, including issues of fairness and the feasibility of alternative assessments. Noting a distinct trend towards online testing, he noted that “not all subjects and competencies can be assessed online or by phone.” Looking beyond school closures, he advised that “we need to assess learners’ progress to identify learning gaps, and offer remedial and accelerated learning and assessment when schools reopen.”

Country experiences

The decision to postpone or cancel exams is never taken lightly as in many countries, they largely determine future study choices. “Exam results are one of most important criteria for university admissions and employment requirements for many companies,” said Dr Xiaoting Huang, Director with the Hong Kong Examinations and Assessment Authority of China. The HKDSE (Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education Examination), the highest-stake exam that determines access to higher education, was postponed by one month, to April 24. “It was a very difficult decision as there are so many possible options,” she said. ”Probably there is no perfect solution but our key strategy was to consult as many stakeholders as possible, including students, parents, teachers and medical experts.” Precautionary measures have been taken in exam venues, including distancing and compulsory wearing of masks. Due to concerns about equity, validity, and transparency, online testing was not retained as an option. “Since HKDSE is so high-stake, fairness is the key,” she said.

Mr Ismael Mulindwa, Director, Basic and Secondary Education, Ministry of Education of Uganda shared the same view on high-stake exams while adopting a different strategy. “We cannot do away with exams – parents believe in them, so does the wider community,” he said, explaining that high stake exams are considered as an “ultimate outcome” of the education system. “It’s a very fragile situation. Parents and students are worried.” To adapt, the Government is reviewing the curriculum  and moving towards formative assessments. “We emphasize self- assessments and home-based assessment, so that at the end of the day, when they come back to school, they have not lost too much,” he said.

The pressure is lighter in the southern hemisphere, where the school year is just getting underway, said Mr. Hugo Labate, Director of Argentina’s Curriculum Agency. Drawing attention to the cultural aspects of evaluation, he said that in many Latin American countries, there is a long tradition of classroom-based assessments rather than standardized high-stake exams. The fairness and quality of such assessments to ensure the same standards across the country is in itself a challenge. While online assessments are being explored, there is concern they could increase inequalities due to lack of Internet access, in addition to their cost. “For now, our strategy is to help teachers deliver classes to their students, receive their course works and assess this at school level,” said Mr Labate.

Dr Karma El Hassan, Director, Office of Institutional Research and Assessment at the American Univeristy of Beirut, explained that the equity issues were the foremost concern in Lebanon with many regions without electricity and internet. Various options are under study, from extending the calendar year, using online assessments or condensing the curriculum.

The vocational education and training field poses a specific set of challenges. “There is a greater risk in vocational education and training that school closures will increase inequalities and drop-out rates,” said Ms. Brigitte Trocme, from the French Ministry of National Education and Youth, drawing attention to the higher share of low-income students in this category and their lower access to devices and connectivity. For most institutions, final exams have been replaced by an assessment based on the record of the last training year, school marks and other factors. Given the challenge to assess practical skills online and without access to materials and equipment, Ms Trocme stressed the importance to  prepare for school reopenings by setting up additional support and personalized monitoring for students.

Turning to universities in the United Kingdom, Anne Anderson, from the UNESCO UK National Commission, explained in a written communication that all face-to-face teaching and traditional examinations are suspended. In the case of students in their final year, universities are working to ensure they can graduate on time with a quality assured degree. They are making maximum use of assessments and completed coursework. Many are offering students the opportunity to undertake on-line assessment on a ‘help not hinder’ basis.  Exam boards will not use marks from these assessments if they reduce the overall grade.

Concluding the session, Mr Sobhi Tawil, Head of Education Research and Foresight at UNESCO, emphasized that all decisions are being made in a context of uncertainy, based on numerous factors, from the overriding concern over health and safety to ensuring equity and equal opportunity in exams and assessments. “We have been imposed, globally, an experiment in remote learning. We are all managing different ways that we can,” he said, encouraging participants to join the Global Education Coalition.