When schools worldwide were forced close to curb the spread of COVID-19, several experts have warned about the negative effects that would follow as students are deprived of their access to education, and called for ways to relieve the long-term impact.
One of the notable policies from Norway and Denmark was to cancel exams for students in some grades and adjust the evaluation method. As students were unable to go to schools as usual, the two nordic governments voiced concern that different social backgrounds might cause learning inequality.
In February, Norway’s education minister Guri Melby for the second year cancelled all written exams for almost all students in junior high and high school due to the pandemic disruption.
“The teaching given to students this year has in some cases varied substantially, something that gives different grounds for assessment,” Melby said in a statement. “A common and equal written assessment is therefore no longer a suitable test of what the students have learned.”
She said the government would ensure a fair assessment would be conducted in other ways for students to be able to receive their grades and transcripts as usual. Exams count for only 20% of Norwegian students’ total grade.
Denmark last year cancelled exams for the 9th and 10th graders (levels before transitioning to secondary education) after schools were forced to shut for two months. The education ministry said school closure “provides poor opportunities for both exam preparation and completion.”
The statement also said schools would have different approaches to handling their classes during the pandemic, therefore children from various social groups might have “benefited differently from the education.”
“There is a risk that especially children from socially disadvantaged families, bilingual pupils, and children with special needs have not received the necessary support, and that their benefit from the education is thus lower than otherwise. They thus risk being placed unreasonably poorly at the final exam. It is therefore for the sake of the students being put on an equal footing – to their legal certainty – that the tests be canceled.”
Students that had their exams cancelled would have their grades assessed by scores from the last exam they took in that academic year, combining with other methods.
Test scores exacerbate inequality?
While it’s commendable that countries with high equality such as Norway and Denmark were able to recognize the possible disparity among their population, there were still debates whether exams cancellation, leaving students’ performance assessed solely by teachers, was the best move.
In April, instead of cancelling like last year, Denmark “reduced” the amount of school exams. The education minister said the policy shift was made after the government saw that a “balance” was required for the students to be able to graduate properly. It also added that students “need exam training.”
Although Norway decided to follow through its last year policy of exam cancellation, a local news report indicated that the ruling party was hesitant to do so. It said students needed an independent academic assessment that didn’t only rely on teachers.
Still, it can’t be denied that a socio-economic background has long been considered a major complication to academic achievement.
The 2018 EU’s analysis on its Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) results found students’ performance in most of its member states significantly impacted by their backgrounds. Pupils from advantaged families were likely to have higher academic achievement than those from disadvantaged families, especially students with migrant backgrounds.
Students with lower academic achievement evidently would see fewer opportunities to higher education, or in the worst case they could fall out of the system entirely. The study noted that the EU is likely to face “a persistent risk of intergenerational transmission of poverty,” if students continued to be inherently robbed of access to education due to their backgrounds.
And undoubtedly, the already prevalent inequality would be aggravated by the pandemic.
A 2020 study by Université du Québec à Montréal said school closure could increase Canadian students’ test score gap by 30%. The paper’s calculation was based on PISA data, and anticipated the 3.2 months of school disruption could cause students from low-income families to lose their reading scores equivalent to two months of study, while others from higher income households could gain scores worth 3.2 months of learning.
The researchers suggested that, while increasing inequality due to the pandemic should be addressed urgently, the gap in test scores among students from different backgrounds highlight “a lingering issue that we will still need to address post-pandemic,” in order to “mitigate the potential rise in achievement gaps by SES during the pandemic, but also beyond the pandemic.”