A deep dive on education: could this be the end of standardised testing?

Holly Branson and Princess Beatrice sat together
Image from Ed Taylor
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 15 June 2020

As the UK slowly emerges from lockdown and schools begin to re-open to some pupils, many of us are curious about what the future of education will look like. This global crisis has brought cracks in the system to light and shown the need for a more flexible, human-focused and equitable education system. It has proven that big shifts in the education system are entirely possible.

At the end of 2019, Big Change shared their 10 big hopes for change in education and the very first was to create a new public conversation about education. COVID-19 has many of us thinking about the ‘where’, ‘who’ and ‘how’ of education and learning.

10 big hopes for change in education
Image from Big Change

To harness this momentum, I’ll be sharing a few new blogs that look at how different parts of the education system have been impacted by COVID-19 and what opportunities there are for long-term positive change.

I thought I’d kick off the conversation with a topic I’m very passionate about – the future (or perhaps the end) of standardised exams. Given that British teenagers are among the most graded in the world, and also the unhappiest - I believe that something needs to shift.

Back in March, the US government announced the waiving of all federal requirements for standardised tests for students in kindergarten through to the 12th grade. Meanwhile, teenagers in the UK had their summer GCSE, AS and A-level exams cancelled, after working toward these tests for years. Instead, UK students will receive a calculated grade from their teacher, based on previous work they’ve submitted. This abrupt disruption to the processes that we use to categorically define a young person’s potential and their path in life is forcing educators all over the world to rethink how we track and measure success. Instead of returning to these tests next year, now is the time to redesign assessment so it measures what really matters, when it matters and in ways that puts less pressure on students.

 At Big Change, we believe we need to redefine success to ensure all young people are set up to thrive in life. Great progress is being made, with the likes of the OECD’s Education 2030 Learning Compass project; focusing on broader outcomes such as agency, attitudes, knowledge and skills that young people need to fulfil their potential and contribute to the wellbeing of their communities and the planet.

The Big Change project partners
Image from Big Change

The coronavirus pandemic has reminded us all what is important in life – such as our family, our health, our essential workers and our communities. The same can be said for education. We’re reminded that the role of education is to help young people thrive in life, not just exams and give them the skills they need for the future.

According to Kevin Courtney and Mary Bousted, joint general secretaries of the NEU teaching union: “England comes third in the international league table for rote learning. How much better would education be if it supported [students] to become independent learners, with a keen interest in acquiring new knowledge and skills, if it developed the personal attributes of optimism, perseverance and resilience? We are sure a better world is possible – and that education staff stand ready to respond to the needs of today’s and tomorrow’s children and young people.”

I couldn’t agree more and I truly hope we emerge from the current crisis with a different approach to assessment and a new way forward.