Can and should young people play a role in designing assessments?


09/06/2014Professor Jannette Elwood, Professor of Education, Queen’s University Belfast

At the time of writing this blog, students are once again in the thick of the examination season, having to navigate one of the most pressurized times in their educational lives. So while they are sitting up to 2 examinations a day and maybe 4 or 5 examinations a week for the next while – I think it is a very apt time to consider whether they can and should play a role in designing the assessments that they sit.

My short answer to the above question is yes! Young people can and should play a role, not only in how assessments are designed but also in how policy around assessment change is debated, consulted upon and final decisions made.

My answer to the question is based on two factors. Within international legislation – the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), to which the government of the day is a signatory – children and young people are classified as rights holders and as such are recognized as being entitled to engage in processes that affect them directlyincluding the development of policies and services (in this instance educational ones) through research and consultation (Elwood and Lundy 2010). And, of course, they are key stakeholders in any future assessment systems and, as such, are as important as any other group of people (assessment experts, teachers, head teachers, parents, employers, government) to have a say about what assessment and qualifications systems will look like and entail.

We know at present the landscape of qualification reform in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of uncertainty and fragmentation. What is clear is that proposed changes to GCSEs and A levels across the nations of the UK will have major (and differential) ramifications for young people and their future educational and employment careers. Likewise, we are seeing major changes to assessment systems for lower secondary and primary school children and have yet to see the full impact of international testing regimes (such as PISA) and their effect on the educational experiences generally of children across all ages. Yet what is also clear is that there has been a limited history of children’s and young people’s participation in the area of assessment generally and relatively none within policy formation or qualification development. Their input is decidedly missing from any meaningful engagement about the current round of proposals and decisions concerning qualifications reform. This, I would argue, is a significantly missed opportunity to see the bigger picture – the full extent of assessment policy change and its impact.

How do we know that young people have something worthwhile to tell us about assessment reform? Well, we are beginning to know a great deal more about what they think about education generally and from national research that has engaged with young people on these issues (Elwood 2012 and 2013), we are beginning to know a great deal more about what they think, not only about qualification reform, but also about not being consulted about such significant and high level debates. This lack of participation in any decision making on these issues begins to make young people feel more like victims of assessment policy reforms rather than beneficiaries.

So what do they have to say? In talking to nearly 250 young people from across England (Elwood 2012), they told us that yes examinations do dominate their lives in school but that they enjoy them if they are well prepared and know that they won’t get far without good grades. They also thought that examinations structured through modules (and re-sits) allows for any mistakes to be made better, takes the stress off having to do everything in one sitting and that it is only fair to all young people to have a mixture of examinations and coursework – ‘we don’t all like the same things.’ However they felt there was too much confusion about the ‘worth’ of all the different types of qualifications offered and that actual grades were being devalued – with A* taking over as the status of excellence, but not everyone could achieve that. They also felt insulted at the annual circus of the ‘standards are falling’ debates feeling their achievements were degraded; obtaining good grades in whatever qualifications they sit is tough and not getting any easier. They also wanted to know why changes to examinations are introduced ‘live’, i.e. in to their examinations sessions, where their future successes might be ‘messed-up’ if these changes haven’t been piloted in advance; such changes can have considerable impact on their final grades and that is too high a price to pay.

Thus young people have a lot to tell us about both the positive and negative impact of assessments on their lives – we should be listening to them more on these matters. So how might policy makers and assessment developers engage with young people more effectively? There are a number of ways in which this can happen such as: focused policy briefings with education officials and young people in order to obtain input into current debates; examination boards actively setting up panels with young people so that their views can be fed directly into assessment design and implementation; and strategies for consultation involving social media that speak directly to students to gauge their opinions. Good practice, however, and especially rights-based approaches – would mean that we would ask young people what they think is the most effective way to engage with them directly and then change our practice accordingly.

Including young people in decision-making about the future of assessment design or implementation will not be easy; nor will it provide the answer to all the problems that they and we, as assessment professionals, face. But they are authoritative on these matters, just like us, and have a great deal to offer in terms of how they see the world, what they see as salient in their education, what will be of benefit to them and how such future assessment systems could and should be developed with a consideration of their best interests firmly centre-stage.


Elwood J and Lundy L (2010) Revisioning assessment through a children’s rights approach: implications for policy, process and practice’, Research Papers in Education, 25: 3, 335 — 353.

Elwood J (2013) The role(s) of student voice in 14-19 education policy reform: reflections from students on what theyare, and what they are not, consulted about, London Review of Education, 11(2), 97-111.

Elwood J (2012) Qualifications, examinations and assessment: perspectives and views of students in the 14-19phase on policy and practice, Cambridge Journal of Education, 42: 4, 497-512.

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