Expert warns AI threat should have delayed a key review on the future of Scottish school exams
A landmark report that is expected to herald a historic shift away from exams in Scotland's schools should have been postponed months ago in order to properly assess the impact of artificial intelligence (AI) technology, a leading expert has said.
Lindsay Paterson, professor of education policy at Edinburgh University, told The Scotsman he feared a “very big mistake” will be made if the Hayward review does not take the issue seriously enough.
The study, which is chaired by Glasgow University professor Louise Hayward and is due to report imminently, is expected to say that pupils should no longer undergo exams for three consecutive years in S4, S5 and S6.
Ross Greer, education spokesman for the Scottish Greens, said he believed the changes would represent “the biggest reform of the education system for 150 years”, with a greater emphasis on coursework offering a more “accurate reflection” of a pupil’s abilities.
However, the report is due to be published amid rising concern about the plagiarism opportunities that are opening up for pupils and students through the use of AI technology, such as ChatGPT.
Prof Paterson believed there were “lots and lots of problems” with the direction the report is expected to take, including insufficient consideration of the impact of AI, and whether it “destroys the possibility of valid assessment” that is not invigilated.
He was "not at all alarmist about AI", insisting it had "fantastic opportunities for education" and could be a "great resource".
But he said: “My view would be that a decision to postpone the final report from Hayward should have been taken when the astonishing capability of ChatGPT became clear, which was in November 2022 - and so with plenty of time to hold an extra consultation on this matter.”
Prof Paterson believes comments should have been invited specifically on the implications of AI, with the final report scheduled for early autumn instead of May.
He said that even if the final report addresses the question of AI, it will not have had the benefit of open consultation.
"The thing in education is this question of whether AI really destroys the possibility of valid assessment that doesn't take place under invigilated conditions,” he said.
"If Hayward doesn't seriously take that on board, it is going to be a very big mistake."
However, even before the impact of AI is considered, Prof Paterson said he already had concerns about a move away from exams, arguing that it was currently impossible to prevent an influence from a child’s home on coursework.
"I'm not talking about parents deliberately distorting the system, writing their children's homework for them. That's not the point,” he said.
"It's just simply that if you are doing your project or investigation or whatever, in the context of a home where there is lots of educational discussion, in which your parents and siblings maybe take an interest in what you are doing, you are getting more stimulation than you are in a home where you struggle to even get a quiet space to do the work.”
He added: "Although no system is perfect at all, exams are the closest we have invented to create a system of assessment that is somewhat independent of the social circumstances that children face.
"We cannot ever return to a system where it is only exams, that would be awful, but exams are great at forcing you to think on your feet.
"A well designed exam, which we don't have at the moment, can get people to think quickly, can concentrate on the big ideas rather than irrelevant details, can force you to explain difficult ideas into simple terms very, very quickly. These are important life skills.
"Criticising the present system of exams absolutely validly doesn't prove that better designed exams couldn't and shouldn't be used.
"We need better exams and better thought through coursework to avoid unfairness.”
In her interim report, Prof Hayward suggested she would recommend a “significant reduction in external assessment, including examinations, across the senior phase”.
Mr Greer, a West Scotland MSP, is supportive of the proposals and believes they will prove to be hugely significant.
"For 150 years we have stuck to an exam qualification system based on Victorian era understanding of children's psychology and how young people were, and how we're supposed to measure it,” he told The Scotsman.
"The reality is, an hour-and-a-half or two-hour snapshot at the end of a year's worth of learning isn't an accurate reflection of all the knowledge that young person has built up. It's not an accurate reflection of their abilities.
"If they are ill that day, if they've had a bad night's sleep because they have got a chaotic household situation, that puts them at a disadvantage.
"It's going to result in a completely inaccurate grade compared to what they are actually capable of, whereas we know through continuous assessment you get a rounded understanding of a young person's knowledge and ability in any individual subject area.
"But what we can also do with continuous assessment is recognise the broader set of skills that young people have.”
The Hayward review is one of several major reforms under way in Scotland, but Mr Greer believed it was by far the most important.
"We're making huge changes at the moment, whether it is abolishing the SQA, replacing them with an exam body that functions, a new inspectorate, reforming Education Scotland,” he said.
"Those are all the biggest changes since Curriculum for Excellence was introduced a decade, or a decade-and-a-half ago.
"Changing the exam system is going to be the biggest reform of the education system for 150 years, because it's a 150-year old exam system we're using.”
A Scottish Government spokesperson said:
“The need for amended, or new guidance on Artificial Intelligence (AI) tools will be kept under consideration as understanding of the opportunities and threats presented by these technological developments continue to grow.
“As the awarding body for Scotland, the SQA is responsible for guidance on the use of AI in the operational delivery of qualifications. Education Scotland is also undertaking work to consider what further guidance is needed for schools.
“The aim of reforming qualifications and assessment is to ensure that all senior phase learners have the best possible opportunity to demonstrate the breadth, depth and relevance of their learning.
“Ministers look forward to receiving Professor Hayward’s final report. All recommendations will be carefully considered including those on coursework and continuous assessment and the Scottish Government will respond in due course.”
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