The Master of Wellington College James Dahl asks if it’s time to consider whether final exams are the best and fairest way to measure student attainment

Wellington College introduced the IB Diploma as an alternative to A levels in 2008, but only in 2019 did we reach our goal of a 50/50 split in pupils studying the two curricula in Sixth Form. This parity is great news for students, who have a choice between two different but equally thriving academic routes. It also means we can reflect from direct experience on two different ways of assessing young people, a hot topic in recent times given media commentary on teacher-assessed GCSE and A-level results.

Those in favour of keeping the all-or-nothing terminal examination, which characterises most A levels, argue persuasively that this is the only way to ensure equity across a system, eradicating teacher bias and providing an objective comparative measure across a national cohort. When examinations were cancelled a second time in January, however, this high-stakes option was left exposed – particularly with the absence of a Plan B. Cue significant levels of stress and anxiety for young people as they waited two months before hearing details about how TAGs and baskets of evidence would work.

Critics of final exams argue that they provide a snapshot, but not the full picture of a young person’s skills and knowledge

Many critics of terminal assessments cite mental health arguments when proposing alternative models: is it fair, they say, to give only one opportunity to students to prove what knowledge and skills they have developed throughout their course of study? Others argue that exams are, by their very nature, stressful and this is a good thing – it teaches young people to deal with pressure. But even Simon Lebus, the interim chief regulator of Ofqual, commented, “Exams are a bit like a snapshot…whereas teacher assessment…allows teachers to observe student performance over a much longer period…from that point of view, we can feel satisfied that it’s likely to give a much more accurate and substantial reflection of what their students are capable of achieving”.

As a contrast, the structure of assessment in the IB Diploma is a blend of different elements and this is why many pupils are drawn to it. Yes, there are terminal examinations, but these do not count for 100% of the final grade. In addition, there are Internal Assessments (IAs) – IB coursework – internally marked but externally moderated to ensure consistency of standards. Depending on the subject, the IA may account for 20-40% of the final grade.

“There are different ways of assessing young people, blending written and oral work, and examinations with continuous assessment, without compromising standards or fairness”

The Extended Essay (an independent and cross-disciplinary research project) is a compulsory part of the ‘Core’ of the IB Diploma as is Theory of Knowledge, which is assessed not by examination but via an oral presentation and essay. Finally, the unique Creativity, Activity and Service (CAS) element of the Diploma is recorded through student reflection, with evidence required of different learning outcomes. Final grades are therefore calculated through the aggregation of all elements, many of which are completed and assessed throughout the course, as well as traditional end-of-course examinations.

I understand why some teachers simply want to return to the familiarity and certainty of the old way of doing things, but I can’t help feeling that this is an opportunity missed. Our experience has certainly been that the IB Diploma offers compelling evidence that there are different ways of assessing young people, blending written and oral work, and examinations with continuous assessment, without compromising standards or fairness.

Wellington College

Further reading: Are exams fit for purpose?