High-stakes school exams during COVID-19 (Coronavirus): What is the best approach?


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Students taking exams.
Solutions and measures are being introduced for the exams that students have been preparing to take.

For many students around the world, the end of the school year is associated with high-stakes examinations. These are often used to select or certify students as they move from one level of the education system to the next (or into the workforce). Normally, examinations also play an important equity role in limiting the effects of patronage and opening up access to educational opportunities for students from relatively disadvantaged backgrounds. With the coronavirus forcing school closures and bans on group gatherings, many solutions and measures are being introduced for the exams that students have been preparing to take.  There are three main alternative approaches.

Examinations are cancelled

Norway has canceled all written examinations for 10th grade (final year) students in junior high school and for students in all three years of high school. The consequences of the cancellation are not expected to be large, as exams count for 20 percent of the final grade, while course participation counts for 80 percent. In Uttar Pradesh in India, students in grades 1-8 will be promoted to the next grade without taking examinations. In the United States, the SAT is often used in the university admissions process and is administered in person at schools. The May 2, 2020, SAT has been cancelled, and the June 6 test is being reviewed. Hence many U.S. universities are adjusting their admissions criteria to make such tests optional. Likewise, the International Baccalaureate examinations will not be held, and instead students will be awarded a Diploma or a Course Certificate “based on the student’s coursework and the established assessment expertise, rigor and quality control already built into the programmes.”

Examinations are postponed

For students planning to take the West African Senior School Certificate Examination (WASSCE) in May and June 2020, the exam has been suspended in their countries and will be revisited once the health situation improves. The Caribbean Examination Council (CXC), which covers 16 countries and territories in the West Indies, has postponed its high school exams from May and June to July 2020. Although the Czech Republic has introduced preparation for school-leaving examinations on TV, there are now discussions to postpone the exams. Hong Kong has postponed its Diploma of Secondary Education (DSE) exam by a month (to April 24, 2020). In Ireland, discussions are underway to postpone for several months the Leaving Cert, the terminal exam for post-primary education that is used for selection to further education and employment), which was originally planned for June 2020, as well as to postpone the start of the next academic year at higher education institutions. Likewise in India, exams to enter higher education have been postponed, and the government is working to revise the exam schedule as well as adjust the academic calendar. In China, the GaoKao university entrance examinations, which nearly 10 million students take per year, are postponed by one month to July 7 and 8, 2020. In Colombia, state exams have been postponed as options for rescheduling are explored.

Examinations continue to take place in modified format

Some examinations are continuing to take place. In the United Kingdom, sixth-year medical school students have just taken their exams online for the first time. Students had three hours to answer 150 questions, so although the exam was in “open book” format, it was presumably impossible to do well by searching for information online without having sufficient knowledge of the subject matter. Advanced Placement (AP) exams, which measure students’ mastery of content and skills in a specific subject and are used to obtain college credit in the United States, will be administered online this year in free-response format, with resources provided to students and administrators online. The CXC high school exams in the Caribbean are expected to be implemented in modified online and offline formats, with multiple choice assessments plus school-based assessments to determine final grades.

In Germany, secondary school-leaving exams will take place under strict hygiene and distance regulations. Depending on the specific state, exams have already taken place, have been postponed by a few weeks, or will be conducted on schedule.

What is the right approach?

It depends. In general, examinations are used to make decisions about an individual student’s progress through the education system, including the allocation of educational opportunities. For exams to be fair to all students, they should be standardized – factors such as the content and format of the examination papers and tasks, the administration conditions, access to resources and any supporting materials, and analysis of results should be the same (or equivalent) for all students. Along with validity and reliability, fairness is important to maintain, as high-stakes decisions are made about students’ futures based on their results. Thus, bodies such as examination councils, boards, and ministries of education will need to address several key questions before determining how to proceed, including:

  • If exams are cancelled or postponed beyond the scheduled date for high-stakes decisions, on what basis will decisions be made for allocating scarce resources, such as university spaces or scholarships, and how can transparency and fairness be preserved? 
  • If exams move to an online format, how can fair access be ensured for all students? What provisions will guarantee that students in remote or rural areas, those with disabilities, and those with no (or low-quality) access to the internet or to computers or tablets will be able to take the exam? How will the examinations team ensure that test security is maintained, and what mechanisms will prevent test manipulation or item leakage? Finally, how can students from different socioeconomic backgrounds prepare for the new format/delivery of exams in an equitable and fair way, given the disruption of classroom learning?
  • If exams are replaced with teacher (or “expert”)-provided grades, what resources need to be delivered to teachers to ensure accurate and fair assessment and effective communication of what students know and can do, particularly in the context of distance learning?

Within rapidly evolving circumstances and an uncertain duration of disruption, it is not yet clear which approach is the right one, and it is likely that coming months will reveal that different approaches are best suited to specific examination systems. Understanding should prevail at times when students and their parents are concerned not only about their futures, but about their lives. A ray of hope can be seen in Korea, where COVID-19 seems to be better contained than in most countries, and where students are continuing to study and prepare for university entrance exams in November 2020. Hopefully in coming weeks and months, as social distancing policies and responsive health systems make headway against the health emergency, students around the world can resume worrying about how to do well on their exams – in whichever format and delivery mode – rather than about the health of their loved ones and about whether the exams they have studied so hard for will take place at all.   

Information provided is as of March 31, 2020 and may not reflect the latest updates as the decisions about examinations are evolving.

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