International Council for Education Advisers—school exams ‘outdated technology’ in the 21st century

student wearing a mask doing an exam

Are high school exams out of date? Just before Christmas, the Scottish Government’s International Council for Education Advisers (ICEA) called for the end of high school exams as we know them in a report, and the idea attracted plenty of media attention.

The ICEA, whose membership includes Professor Chris Chapman, the Network for Social and Educational Equity’s principal investigator and the chair of Educational Policy and Practice at the University of Glasgow, called exams “out of date technology” operating in the 21st century.

Digital technology had “transformed our capacity for self-assessment, peer assessment, shared assessment and continuous assessment”, and that assessment and exams could be continuous rather than episodic.

Exams ‘like driving tests’

The ICEA report added that teachers’ professional judgement, use of formative assessments, and teacher moderation were also key parts of assessment systems. Sit-down exams might still feature, but if they were based on a wide range of changing, problem-based questions, they could be taken and re-taken in the same way as driving tests are, and sat throughout the year rather than in a “one-time, high-stress, win-lose moment”.

High school exams, the report continued, have long been seen as “poor predictors of future university success”. The selection function of exams remains important; there is a need to create approaches that address problems of validity and equity in current arrangements.

The report quoted California—the state has transferred its budget from standardised testing to formative assessment. California has also abandoned standard achievement tests as the basis for university selection.

Reliable metrics

This year’s exam issues in Scotland highlighted the danger of the legitimate needs of reliable metrics overriding the breadth of learning that is increasingly central to success for individuals, societies and economies. What happened to exams in 2020 provides a learning opportunity for practitioners to study how the more relaxed entry requirements to universities will impact future university performance among those who may not have been admitted to universities previously.

This was ICEA’s second report since the establishment of the council in 2016. In general, the report pointed out that over the last two years Scotland has increased its commitment to the profession, practitioner empowerment and improving compensation and working conditions.

RICs and professional networks

Leadership programmes have been developed and the regional improvement collaboratives have built greater collaboration between local authorities. Professional networks have emerged to share successful examples of what works across schools.

The report was keen to emphasise that one of the myths that has grown up around the coronavirus pandemic is that it is a “once in a lifetime” event, when the probability of future pandemics is likely to increase thanks to climate change and the greater proximity of human populations to exotic species and their habitats. This furthers the need for education to prepare for similar future events.

The panel of educational experts recommends “a profound transformation to Scottish education”, and to all educational systems so they can operate effectively and withstand massive disruption.

‘High quality education’ during pandemics

The authors propose “a universally designed educational system that provides high quality education for all during a pandemic in ways that also improve and transform high quality education for all in other “normal” circumstances.

Speaking about the report and its ideas, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney said: “The International Council of Education Advisers recognises the effort and resources going in to narrow attainment gaps and strengthen the teaching profession.

“That is no easy task and the report provides a series of detailed recommendations to help us not just get back to normal, but to use the pandemic as an opportunity to develop a more resilient education system for the future.

“I am grateful to every member of the Council for giving us their time and their experience to help improve education  We will consider the report carefully, discuss with our partners and publish a full response in the new year.”

Professor Chris Chapman added: “Despite the challenges that we have faced during the global pandemic it has been a pleasure to work with ICEA colleagues to offer challenge and support to the Scottish education system so that all children and young people of Scotland can achieve their full potential.”

The International Council of Education Advisers (ICEA) was established in 2016 to provide advice regarding education policies and practices to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to advance equity and excellence in the Scottish education system.

Click on the button below to download a pdf copy of the International Council for Education Advisers 2018-2020 report. 




We are the Network for Social and Educational Equity, based in the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change at the University of Glasgow. We work with governments, educational institutions, local authorities and teachers to promote educational change.

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About NSEE

The Network for Social and Educational Equity (NSEE) is part of the Robert Owen Centre for Educational Change (ROC) at the University of Glasgow.

It works in collaboration with schools, local authorities, Education Scotland and partner services to tackle the poverty-related attainment gap in young people’s education.

NSEE helps schools to use appropriate evidence and data within collaborative working approaches to critically examine context and current arrangements, make changes based on evidence, monitor the impact of these changes and reflect on what they learn.

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