Why assessing 16-year-olds is important for higher education

Are there advantages to abandoning assessment at the end of basic secondary education?

Students during an English Literature class at St Andrew's RC Secondary School in Glasgow, November 11. PA wire
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Research is vital to help us fulfil the potential of education. The Cambridge University Press and Assessment came out with a report this year on the form and function of assessment at age 16 that adds to the robust research that should underpin education reform around the world. Part of our organisation, Cambridge Partnership for Education, works with governments to develop education systems and with our research specialists to deliver evidence-based solutions. Together, we presented latest findings in October at the Middle East Education Thought Leadership Forum, attended by leaders, educators and students from across the region.

While it is important to focus on what should happen in higher education in terms of curriculum and assessment, our work suggests that policy makers and commentators need also to appreciate and understand the links and influences between different phases of a national education system. We have examined the form and function of national assessments at age 16 around the world, and the implications these have for higher education.

Higher education providers want committed learners, knowledgeable and competent in chosen fields with appropriate command of maths and communication, and able to both utilise social learning and to work collaboratively with others. Higher education can further develop these aspects of learning and performance. However, the role of institutions and the staff in them presupposes adequate development of both discipline knowledge and learning dispositions in prior phases of learning, and can add more value if these are well-developed in learners at their point of arrival. Indeed, the form and level of attainment of arriving students can significantly affect the content and duration of the higher education curriculum: there is interdependence in systems. It therefore is important to consider the role of qualifications and assessment at the ages of 16 and 18.

The role of assessment varies across the Gulf countries. In the UAE, formal examinations around 18 are used to demonstrate students’ attainment at the end of secondary school and open up opportunities for further education. Throughout the system, students are increasingly supported by formative assessment too. Those reforms will introduce formal assessment not only around 16, but every two years prior as well.

Gulf education systems are changing. The National

In Oman, students are already assessed every year, with a mixture of continuous assessment and examination from Grade 5 to 12. In Saudi Arabia, the Education and Training Evaluation Commission is developing a new National Assessment Programme and is asking key questions about the form and function of assessment.

With the disruption in education caused by the global pandemic, around the world voices have been raised – with old messages and new – regarding whether nations should have high-stakes assessment at 16. Indeed, some UAE educationists have discussed examination-free systems, an ongoing debate in countries such as England.

Keeping in mind the interdependence of different phases, in 2020 we updated our 2015 review of assessment in high-performing systems around the world. We did not ask which nations have exams at 16. Instead, we asked ourselves a different question: "What do high-performing systems do at age 16?" The results were extremely interesting. Of the 21 high-performing systems which we examined, all had high-stakes assessment at age 16 – assessment which determined features of the next stage of education, either in terms of which institution learners attended and/or which subjects/tracks the learners subsequently focused on. Of those, two thirds use external assessment as a key part of arrangements at 16.

Jurisdictions with external assessment included Singapore, Estonia, England, Russia, Japan and Shanghai. In addition, in many of these nations, external assessment was found to play a critical role in providing students with qualifications in subjects that they might not study again. 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 qualifications undertaken at age 16.

We 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. We also examined concerns about using assessment at the end of basic secondary education for the purpose of accountability, concluding that repeat high performers such as Estonia and Shanghai indeed do so.

But perhaps the most important point is this: having specialist education in the 16-18 phase, where learners typically specialise in three to four subjects for two years, brings better performance at university.

The approach to specialisation varies across the Gulf countries. In several instances, students choose to follow either a literary, science or technical stream in their final two-three years of education. A specialist education in the 16-18 phase provides deep knowledge and discipline focus, which in turn allows short duration, intensive higher education. For specialisation in the 16-18 phase, assessment and qualifications at 16 allows signalling of which subjects a student can best study at ages 16-18, and certification of those subjects that they will cease learning at 16. In countries where families pay for higher education, such as England, they have an interest in the effectiveness, intensity and duration of higher education.

Where education is provided for free at all levels for citizens, such as in several GCC countries, it remains important to justify significant national investment and demonstrate progress. A key point from our analysis is this: three-year university degrees of high standing are dependent on specialising at age 16-18, which in turn is dependent on assessment at 16. In this situation, any voices for reform or improvement must appreciate the international evidence and the interconnected nature of the ecosystem that we call "national education and training".

Tim Oates is group director of assessment and research at Cambridge University Press and Assessment

Published: December 17, 2021, 9:00 AM
Updated: December 20, 2021, 1:01 PM