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Exam Uncertainty: What’s in Store for The Class of 2021?

Updated: Oct 28, 2022

If there’s one thing that’s certain these days it’s that everything is uncertain. In-class lessons are on, then they’re off, then they’re on again (at least partially). But what of exams? We already know that GCSEs and A Levels have been cancelled in the UK; what we don’t know yet is whether their international equivalents will go ahead. It’s the same with IB. They’re all on for now – but for how long?

This time last year, no one could have imagined that the class of 2020 would be denied the opportunity to sit their final exams. Since then, sadly, we’ve watched the Covid-19 pandemic gather speed across the globe at staggering pace, and while none of us really want to believe it, deep down we all know there’s a distinct possibility that 2021’s cohort will face a similar fate to last year’s graduates.

A cautionary tale

The 2019/20 academic year was, quite simply, a nightmare for graduating students. School closures began back in November, when the Education Bureau (EDB) closed campuses due to Hong Kong’s ongoing protests. Then the virus hit, and while children in the west continued with normal schooling, Hong Kong took a cautious approach and turned to online learning immediately. Students began to worry that they would be at a serious disadvantage come the summer.

As it turned out, the rest of the world was soon to ‘catch up’ with Southeast Asia’s predicament, and ultimately, exams were cancelled. This brought about a whole new set of problems and concerns, with schools and exam boards alike struggling to adapt to the unprecedented situation they found themselves in.

(Image: Kellett School)

On the plus side, this year we’re going into things with our eyes wide open and with lots of lessons (hopefully) learnt. Faced with the possibility that grades will be awarded according to teacher assessments, many schools have adapted their approach and introduced precautionary measures, such as additional mock exams – mock mocks, so to speak. Many of these extra assessments took place towards the end of 2020 at international schools like Kellett. Joe Alsop, Kellett’s head of senior school, explains the tests were introduced to help GCSE students who had missed out on exam practice last year due to the pandemic.

The other benefit of conducting additional mocks is that the results can be used as concrete evidence to back up teachers’ marks later on, should that become necessary. And this time around, students understand the importance their mock results may hold – something that many dismissed last year and went on to regret.

In the UK, the exam boards have said they will provide guidelines for teachers when it comes to grading in order to help ensure consistency. If international exams are cancelled, we can presumably expect similar guidelines, but just how consistent can assessments really be when each and every school/student has had a wildly different experience of learning over the last 12 months?

Proof and justifications may become a big factor in all of this. Schools, therefore, have placed additional emphasis on tracking students’ progress throughout this academic year. Kellett, for example, has focused on teacher record keeping to ensure that the evidence the school has is robust. Mr Alsop also says that effort has been made to complete Non-Examined Assessments (internally assessed components) while students have been in school.

Student stresses

There is a downside to having to gather so much evidence so early on, though: it puts additional pressure on students to constantly perform at their peak – there’s not much room for failure. Petra, whose children attend another international school, says it’s been difficult at times to keep their spirits up. Her son Tristan finished his A Levels in 2020, and her daughter Lila is due to take her GCSEs this year.

“Lila worries,” she says, “because every piece of work she hands in might count. In the past, if you messed up on an essay, you could learn from your mistakes and carry that lesson into your final exams. Now, it might stay in your portfolio and be on your formal record. I’m not sure what’s worse – the stress Lila is feeling from having prior knowledge that the exams might not go ahead or the worry Tristan felt due to all the last-minute changes. Even though he’s now at university in the UK, he’s still so disappointed that he never got to prove himself in his exams – it really took away some of the pride, the sense of achievement.”

Tristan was actually one of the lucky ones last year, as he achieved the grades he needed to get into his first choice of university. For others, the chaos caused by flawed grading algorithms left them scrambling for a place. The subsequent U-turns only served to exacerbate the fiasco, with universities ending up oversubscribed and struggling to figure out if and how they could honour their offers.

A year of disruption

Although it didn’t seem like it at the time, Tristan was also lucky in terms of how much time he spent in school in the run up to exam season. This year’s final-grade students, in contrast, have spent most of the last twelve months learning from home. Luckily, most Hong Kong international schools have been able to provide a high level of live interaction during the periods of school closure, but in reality, nothing can compare to in-person lessons. With this in mind, schools have been working closely with the EDB to try and maximise the amount of time older students can spend on campus.

(Image: HKA)

Hong Kong Academy (HKA), an IB school, says that grade 12 students have been prioritised from a campus perspective so that they can get as much face-to-face time with their teachers as possible. Looking ahead, HKA has also worked in partnership with families to ensure that every student has access to wide-ranging, detailed university information, despite the limitations the pandemic has imposed in that regard. It’s difficult to choose the right university when you can’t even visit it.

In terms of curriculum coverage, many schools have front-loaded certain aspects of courses this year – particularly practical subjects such as the sciences, which can be difficult to teach remotely. In some cases, exam syllabi have even been amended to reflect the limitations campus closures and social distancing regulations have imposed. GCSE PE, for example, has seen a reduction in the number of sports a student has to evidence. It’s a wise step, given that even the experts can’t agree on how the pandemic will map out over the next few months.

Of course, if international exams do go ahead, questions will inevitably be raised about how fair it is for international students to be compared to those who weren’t able to sit their exams. If they don’t go ahead, we’ll be waiting with bated breath to see whether this year’s grading systems – the details of which have yet to be formally defined – work out better than last year’s. Either way, you wonder how exactly any alternative grading system can ever be considered ‘fair’.

The latest news from the UK is that results this year may be announced much sooner than usual, in early July. That would certainly help the universities, and it would also provide more time for any disputes to be addressed. Let’s just hope that lessons have indeed been learnt and that these measures will keep any issues to a minimum.

To the class of 2021: keep going – you’re nearly there.


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