November 3, 2021 - 7:00am

The exams watchdog Ofqual has just announced a new consultation on producing more accessible assessments by removing ‘complex language’ such as sarcasm, idioms, metaphors, homonyms and abstract nouns. The idea is to make questions ‘accessible, clear and plain’ for students who may be disadvantaged by ‘irrelevant features’ in exams, as well as mitigate the ‘psychological impact of difficult questions’ which may ‘demotivate learners.’

No matter the subject, level or exam board, people have always considered ‘today’s exams’ much easier than the ones they did in their youth. However, never before have examiners been so explicit, and so short-sighted, about making exams easier for students.

There may be an argument for ensuring instructions are unambiguous, or for removing questions that rely on unnecessary cultural context and capital. For example in 2019, an AQA German GCSE question asked students to talk about the advantages and disadvantages of a skiing holiday, which some teachers argued unfairly tested their experiences rather than their vocabulary. 

However, the idea of removing ‘uncommon words’, ‘negative words’ or ‘figurative language’ is undeniably reductive. Another suggestion is to avoid words that have more than one meaning, such as ‘present’, ‘read’ and ‘sound’. Yet this is also ridiculous: homonyms, homophones and homographs are covered in the primary school curriculum from Year 2 onwards. Understanding sophisticated language, abstract concepts and nuance in tone and meaning is an important marker of intelligence, and should be tested accordingly. 

This is far from the only example of the devaluation of the exams system. Just last week Qualifications Wales confirmed that Biology, Chemistry and Physics will no longer be offered as separate GCSE subjects from 2025, and instead will be offered as one integrated science award that will inevitably have less depth. We also already know that grades will be inflated again next year and pupils will be given exam aids, a choice of topics and advance notice of what to revise in certain subjects.

While we need to compensate for Covid disruption, exam boards have found themselves in a situation where the least prepared students continue to get the best grades: this year 44.8% of A-level grades were A* or A (compared with 25.5% in 2019), and 3606 pupils achieved all 9s (the highest grade) at GCSE (compared with 837 in 2019). Students sitting their A-levels next year will have the double bonus of high teacher-assessed GCSE grades in 2020 and more exam inflation in 2022, despite being the most affected cohort of the pandemic. 

This consultation therefore seems to be yet one more attempt by Ofqual to tweak the exam system to make it ‘fairer’ by covering up the huge gaps in students’ learning. Education leaders may say that this is simply a necessary ‘recovery period’, but these safety nets may well become permanent features if disruption continues (there are already contingency plans in place in the event that 2022 exams are also cancelled). There is also no clear end point: for example, should a student currently in Year 10, who will sit their GCSEs in 2023, not also have allowances?

At some point we either need to commit to exams as business as usual, or we need to have a more radical overhaul of the system altogether. This middle ground of watering down exams may seem well-intentioned, but it will soon become so diluted as to be meaningless.

Kristina Murkett is a freelance writer and English teacher.