The varied experiences of some European examinations systems in summer 2020
AlphaPlus’ Director of Research and Evaluation, Andrew Boyle, shares some research into how various European nations have altered their exams in response to the Covid crisis.
The Covid-19 crisis has hit all of us hard in many aspects of life. In the grand scheme of things, Covid’s disruption of summer 2020 school examinations series is probably one of the smaller worries that society faces. Nonetheless, it is a substantial challenge for authorities who have educational responsibilities in many countries.
At AlphaPlus, as assessment specialists, we have been called upon to give advice on technical matters related to grade awarding this summer. But we also scan the more general context. This includes looking at what is going on in various other nations (none of which we are actually advising).
It struck us that the responses in these nations differed markedly – we were looking at four major nations in western Europe; whilst there are obviously many similarities, there were also significant differences. And so, we thought it would be interesting to write a blog.
Background to studied countries
France, Germany, Spain, and Republic of Ireland.
This blog is about academic examinations at the end of secondary schools. Generally, that means when young people are aged about 18. Basically, all of the exams studied have a function of facilitating university entrance; some of them are also a certification of school attainment, whilst others are more separate from schooling. Most countries also issue an overarching diploma – England’s practice of issuing individual qualifications for specific subjects is rarer.
Also, while GCSE is an important milestone in the English education system, 16+ qualifications are less prominent in other places; some do exist (for example the brevet in France), but they are less prominent stepping stones than the GCSE.
Political responsibility for education
This can vary between nations; in some, responsibility rests with central government, but in others, various autonomous communities, states and so on carry out tasks relating to exams.
Other methodological notes
This is a rapid review of a range of sources – these are mostly newspapers and press releases from examinations agencies. As such, we don’t delve into deep technicality of awarding approaches. We use reputable newspapers and websites as far as possible, and provide a reference list at the end of this document.
One particular thing that we haven’t done here, which we would do in a formal research exercise, is get our assertions validated by an assessment expert in each country that we talk about.
Whilst the above limitations are real enough; we still believe this exercise is worthwhile. The differences in responses to the same problem from ostensibly similar countries is often remarkable. Through looking at how nations react to crises, we can often discern interesting things about attitudes to assessment more generally; we can work out what is important and how we can all address knotty problems.
European nations’ approaches
All of the brevet [16+ equivalent] and general, technological, and professional baccalaureate [18+] tests will be awarded on the basis of continuous assessment (Morin, 2020)
Morin also explained the situation to parents as follows:
The principle is the same for both professional and general and technological high school students: the exams are validated by continuous assessment. There will be therefore, for the 740,000 graduating students, neither oral nor written baccalaureate.
This continuous monitoring / assessment [contrôle continu] includes:
- The grades obtained for the three quarters of the terminal year, excluding the confinement period.
- The assessments of the ‘schoolbook’ [the school’s internal assessment records] including on attendance and engagement during the confinement period.
Marks received during the lockdown period will not contribute directly to students’ final grades, but teachers will be able to take a view as to students’ engagement during this period, and any subsequent internal tests might take into account matters that students could or should have learned during lockdown.
Le Monde also went on to explain the role of ‘regional juries’ in Bac processes. The juries, which will meet in each département, must make it possible to guarantee ‘equity’ between the candidates, and ensure ‘harmonisation’ between establishments.
Gauthier (2018, p. 124) says that the jury decides whether a student has passed. In borderline cases, the jury can consult the livret du baccalauréat, or the livret scolaire. Livret literally means something like ‘booklet’, but a better translation would be something like ‘continuous assessment mark book’. Gauthier says that the use of this information (in normal times) is somewhat limited (ibid. at p. 125). But examples on the web (see, National Ministry of Education and Youth, 2020) show a well-developed and standardised set of instruments for teachers to make their continuous assessments – somewhat similar to a vocational qualifications portfolio in the UK. If these are used well by French teachers, they should provide a basis for the awarding of fair exam grades.
With the caveat that we are looking at newspaper reports and press releases, it is interesting that the ‘harmonisation of grades’ appears to be effected by these local juries – rather than the national statistical realignments that are envisaged in the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
The bac is also due for a major revision in 2021 (Gauthier, 2018, p. 127). Presumably, this summer’s events will not have helped officials preparing for that roll out.
In Spain, education policy and operations are shared between the national government, and that autonomous communities (comunidades autónomas). The system has substantial devolution of tasks to local level.
The main route into university in Spain is via an examination known as la Selectividad, or La Evaluación de Bachillerato para el Acceso a la Universidad (EBAU) – the assessment of the Baccalaureate for access to university.
Normally, there are two versions of the Selectividad (A & B) (Wikipedia, n.d.). However, in 2020, these two versions will be combined into a single version. Candidates will have the same amount of time, and will have a choice of questions from a curriculum blocks within the exam blueprint. However, they should be able to gain top marks without having had to cover any material that was due to be taught during the Covid shutdown period (Stegmann, 2020; Government of Spain, 2020).
However, this proposal has been controversial with many Autonomous Communities. According to press reports, ‘the Ministry of Education admits that five autonomous communities ‘disagree’ with the agreement on the assessment of the Selectividad course’ (Europapress, 2020).
A government order (Government of Spain, 2020) states that the tests in the normal examinations session will have to be held between June 22 and July 10. The provisional results will be published before July 17, 2020.
Also, there will be an extraordinary session with a deadline of September 17, 2020, this day included, instead of September 10, as originally proposed. In the case of the extraordinary session, the publication date for provisional results will be September 23 as the last day¹.
Some press reports suggest that organising Selectividad exams session has been difficult for the autonomous communities (Silió, 2020). Autonomous communities are being creative in using university facilities and conference centres in which to run exams. They are putting in place sanitation facilities. But different parts of the country have differential access to the necessary facilities, and practical matters impinge – in some centres, there are (for example) big enough halls to host the exams, but not enough bathrooms for students to use safely during breaks.
¹ To British eyes, these deadlines look extremely short. Our informant (a Spanish teacher, rather than an exams specialist) states that it is normal to receive back grades within two or three weeks in Spain. We should bear in mind the seeming rapidity of the return of results as stated here, however.
Republic of Ireland
The Republic’s State Examinations Commission (SEC, 2020) put out a press release on 10th April. This states, amongst other things:
- Following the closure of schools on the 13th March, the decision was made to cancel Leaving Certificate [Ireland’s ‘18+’ examination / qualification] oral tests and Leaving Certificate and Junior Cycle [‘16+’ equivalent] practical performance tests due to commence at the end of March and to extend the closing date for the completion of project work and coursework until the 15th May.
- At Leaving Certificate, all final written examinations due to take place in May and June will be rescheduled to a new timetable commencing at end July / early August.
- At Junior Cycle, the written examinations are postponed and will be rearranged as school-based tests when schools reopen.
- Various other coursework, or project work submissions that had been due in April or May are now re-scheduled for July and August.
- At Junior Cycle, the SEC will provide schools with the examination papers and related materials they need to deliver these tests when schools reopen. All of the remaining elements of the Junior Cycle, project work, coursework and assessment tasks, will also be rescheduled to that time.
More recent press reports, however, inform us that the Irish government has – in effect – cancelled the Leaving Certificate for summer 2020 (O’Brien, 2020; Kelly, 2020). Minister for Education, Joe McHugh, said that there was:
‘compelling advice which made proceeding with the exams impossible’. He said that while he would have preferred a written exam, it wouldn't be fair to ask students to do this. He said students could now ‘get on with their lives’.
(Quoted in Kelly, 2020)
Students who wish to sit a written exam can do so later – in November. This is similar to catch-up exam session planned in the UK.
Ireland will then follow on a process of calculated grades, which is similar to the UK’s. The Department for Education & Skills (DfES) has published a dossier of the processes to be followed (DfES, 2020). Irish processes have many similarities with the UK’s (teachers allocate grades, and rank orders within those grades, followed by a national adjustment to fit schools into pre-existing patterns.
However, there are also some differences from the UK approach, and points of interest, including:
- The SEC would not be involved in the process, ‘this is because this new system does not include exams as defined by legislation, and so the SEC cannot be involved’ (Kelly, 2020). In contrast, Ofqual, and other regulators, are heavily involved with UK approaches.
- Teachers are being asked to give students marks for each individual component of a subject, for example coursework, written papers, or an oral or practical examination (Kelly, 2020). Again, this is different to the UK where the predicted grades and ranks operate at the qualification level.
In Germany, most students wishing to enter university must pass their allgemeine Hochschulreife (“general qualification for university entrance”), known colloquially as das Abitur. The Abitur exams are traditionally held between March and June, but this year were disrupted by Covid-19.
Education policy is primarily decided by each of the sixteen Länder or states, rather than at the federal level, leading to some initial disagreement between the states as to the best way to proceed with the Abitur. For example, officials in the northern state of Schleswig-Holstein were planning to cancel this year’s exam session, while in the central state of Hesse, exams had already begun (Deutsche Welle, 2020).
Despite this disagreement and the subsequent delay, students in all regions began their Abitur from 21st April, with a few concessions to Covid-19. Although other solutions – such as dropping the Abitur altogether and calculating results from students’ previous grades – were suggested, these were eventually rejected. For example, Schleswig-Holstein's education minister had previously called for the Abitur to be cancelled and for a final grade to be calculated using coursework and other exams taken in the previous two years (Deutsche Welle, 2020).
Deutsche Welle (2020) notes the political reluctance to gift (‘schenken’) students their Abitur; it’s possible that officials believed that this would impact perception of the qualification in future. There were also concerns that cancelling the Abitur would lead to ‘Nachteilen für die Abiturienten auf dem Berufs- und Ausbildungsmarkt’ (‘disadvantages for the Abitur students in the professional and training market’) (Südkurier, 2020).
As mentioned, there have been some minor changes to the Abitur this year:
- Students doing their “Darstellendes Spiel” (Performing Arts) Abitur are being asked to keep a minimum distance away from each other during their performance (Deutsche Welle, 2020).
- Students who had planned on doing a contact sport as part of their Sport Abitur are being asked to choose a different sport (Deutsche Welle, 2020).
- New procedures for exam halls have been put in place (NDR, 2020), including
- Staff must record how all students are feeling before the exam starts
- Ventilation in the exam hall
- Hand sanitizer must be available
- Desks must be spaced widely – in one example, a gym hall with room for 500 is used as an exam space for 35 students
- In Bavaria, the Minister of Culture announced that all other exams were cancelled, so that students in all secondary, technical and vocational schools (‘Gymnasien und die Fach- und Berufsoberschulen’) could focus on studying for the Abitur (Muenchen.de, 2020).
Although we have only looked at a limited number of news articles, students quoted in these articles seemed to be pleased that the Abitur was not being postponed again (‘Abi nicht noch mal verschoben wurde’) (Süddeutsche Zeitung, 2020). One student did not think that this year’s Abitur ‘anders gewertet werden soll’ (‘should be marked differently’) (SWP.de, 2020).
Our ‘itch’ to do this work was the thought that neighbouring, very similar, nations often do education very differently. The current circumstance is an unprecedented crisis, and so we might expect differences of approach to manifest. Such differences are just interesting per se, but also we might understand something more fundamental about what the practice of examinations.
In the table below, we summarise some of the points of interest across the four nations. Again, our point in doing so is to gain insight and points of interest, rather than to criticise. This summer’s scenario is uniquely challenging, and we wouldn’t sit here and tell hard pressed exams agencies they had got things wrong.
Postponed or cancelled
Points of interest
- Continuous assessment records used to set grades.
- Continuous assessment record book looks clear and well standardised.
- Regional juries have major role in ensuring ‘harmonisation’.
- Nothing in the articles we have said talking about national statistical adjustments, like the UK or Ireland.
- Summer 2020 may well impact on major reforms planned for 2021.
- Some reports of disagreements between state education Ministry and autonomous communities.
- Also reports of logistical concerns in locating and setting up suitable exams halls and associated facilities.
- Students will be able to achieve top marks even by answering no content that should have been covered when schools have been out.
- This will be achieved by merging the two versions of each exam paper that exist into one longer paper, and giving students more options.
- Apparently rapid turnaround in marking.
Initially postponed, then effectively cancelled
- Initial decision to run delayed exams session reversed due to health concerns. Irish Minister expressed this in strong terms.
- Teacher grades plus ranks, then national statistical adjustment – similar to UK.
- Some differences to UK (SEC not involved; estimates for all components, not just overall).
- Agreement between all states to run Abitur as normal, despite initial disagreement.
- Changes to the way exams are run (e.g. socially distanced exam halls, no contact sport Abitur), but no changes to exam content or marking.
- Centres submit an estimated grade for each student entered and a rank order within each grade for every subject.
- The head of centre must declare estimates are accurate and the integrity of the information is sound.
- Exam boards use prior attainment data to create the overall cohort expected performance for each subject.
- If school predictions are not in line with the predicted performance, then the board will adjust the numbers of students at each grade using the rank order information.
- The candidate can only successfully challenge a grade, if they can show a clerical error in the data submitted by the centre or the board has made a clerical error or not followed due process.
Department for Education & Skills (DfES) (2020). A Guide to Calculated Grades for Leaving Certificate students 2020. 21st May, 2020, Version 1.1. https://tinyurl.com/y8bacex9.
Deutsche Welle (2020). Germany: school-leaving exams will go ahead despite coronavirus. 25th March, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ybyozhst
Deutsche Welle (2020). Schwierige Abiturprüfungen in Corona-Zeiten. [Difficult Abitur exams in the times of corona.] 17th April, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ydfqd92z
Europapress (2020). El Ministerio de Educación admite que cinco comunidades autónomas "discrepan" del acuerdo sobre la evaluación del curso. [The Ministry of Education admits that five autonomous communities "disagree" with the agreement on the course assessment.] 16th April, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/y7rzccyg.
Gauthier, R-F. (2018). Standards setting in France: The baccalauréat. In by Baird, J-A., Isaacs, T., Opposs, D. & Gray, L. (Eds.). Examination Standards – how measures and meanings differ around the world, (London: Institute of Education Press).
Government of Spain (2020). BOLETÍN OFICIAL DEL ESTADO : Orden PCM/362/2020. [Offical State Bulletin: order no.: PCM/362/2020.] https://tinyurl.com/y7tb22nm.
Kelly, E.O. (2020). Teacher union executives meet over Leaving Cert grading plan. Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTE). 9th May, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/y82jd3lu.
Ministère de l'éducation nationale et de la jeunesse [National Ministry of Education and Youth] (2020). Livret scolaire du lycée pour les séries générales et technologiques (jusqu'à la session 2020). 17th April, 2020. [High school continuous assessment mark sheet for general and technological series.] https://tinyurl.com/y78znjj2.
Morin, V. (2020). Bac : « Le contrôle continu n’oblige pas le ministère de l’éducation à changer de stratégie en cas de confinement prolongé ». [Bac : Continuous assessment does not oblige the Ministry of Education to change strategy in the case of prolonged lockdown.]. Le Monde, 4th April, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/wvod6g4.
Muenchen.de (2020). Kultusminister: Keine Klausuren mehr vor den Abitur-Prüfungen. [Minister for Culture: No more tests before the Abitur exams.] 19th April, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ydc2v37s
NDR (2020). Abitur in Corona-Zeiten: Prüfung hinterm Flatterband. [Abitur in the times of corona: exam behind the warning tape.] 21st April, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/yae9bpow
O'Brien, C. (2020). Leaving Cert cancelled: Students who want written exam will have to wait. The Irish Times. 7th May, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ydf2pxmj.
Silió, E. (2020). Organizar la selectividad se convierte en un sudoku imposible. [Organising the Selectividad becomes an impossible sudoku.] 24th April, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/y9wpkn3g.
State Examinations Commission (SEC) (2020). Press Release State Examinations Commission 10th April 2020 – Postponement of the Leaving Certificate and Junior Cycle Examinations. https://tinyurl.com/yc8guysy.
Stegmann, J.G. (2020). Así será la nueva Selectividad adaptada al Covid-19. [The new Selectividad adapted for Covid-19 will be like this.] ABC Sociedad, 23rd April, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/yalwz2b2.
Süddeutsche Zeitung (2020). Reifeprüfung im Zeichen von Corona. [School-leaving exams under the sign of corona.] 20th May, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/yb5ag5vz
Südkurier (2020). Reifeprüfung trotz Coronavirus: Das waren die Abitur-Aufgaben im Fach Deutsch. [School-leaving exams in spite of coronavirus: these were the Abitur tasks for German.] 22nd May, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/ybmjbguj
SWP.de (2020). Lernen am Limit: So hat ein Langenauer Abiturient die Corona-Zeit erlebt. [Learning at the limit: how an Abitur student in Langenau experienced the corona period.] 20th May, 2020. https://tinyurl.com/y9eqodll
Wikipedia (n.d.). Selectividad. https://tinyurl.com/hn88lua.