Extra fuel for already a heavy debate: teachers predict pupil success just as well as exam scores

In my own country there is a hefty debate pro- and contra centralized and standardized tests – I hope you know those aren’t synonyms. I also know from research that e.g. in The Netherlands the advice which track to take in education teachers give to pupils, are influenced by the social economic status of those children. On the other hand I know also that the highest effect size in Hattie’s 2017 list, Teacher estimates of student achievement is so high not because working on teachers’ expectations results in much more learning (effect size .43) but because his high d is caused by teachers knowing very well which kid will succeed.

This new study adds fuel to this last element as this new research from King’s College London finds that teacher assessments are equally as reliable as standardized exams at predicting educational succes. One way of explaining this, seems to be self fulfilling prophecy, but I do think it’s probably more complicated than that. I know for sure this study won’t end any of the mentioned debates.

From the press release:

The researchers say their findings, published today in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, question whether the benefits of standardised exams outweigh the costs.

Teacher assessments were found to correlate strongly with exam scores across English, mathematics and science from age 7-14, with both measures equally as powerful at predicting later exam success. Teacher assessments predicted around 90% of the differences between pupils in exam performance at GCSE and A-level.

Co-lead researcher Dr Kaili Rimfeld, from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), said: ‘We have shown for the first time that teacher assessments predict GCSE and A-level results just as well as earlier exam scores. The fact that exam scores correlate so highly with the teacher assessments raises questions about the value of the testing culture that characterises compulsory education in the UK.’

Co-lead researcher Dr Margherita Malanchini, from the IoPPN and the University of Texas at Austin, said: ‘While testing can stimulate both pupils and teachers to focus their efforts, high-stakes exams may shift the educational experience away from learning towards exam performance. For these reasons, we suggest that teacher assessments could be relied on for monitoring progress, instead of exam scores, in particular during earlier school years.’

Previous research has looked at how either exam scores or teacher assessments predict educational success, but not compared the two. The researchers were able to make the comparison by linking data from over 5,000 twin pairs in the Twins Early Development Study(TEDS) with teacher assessments and exam scores in the National Pupil Database.

Previous research from King’s College London has established that genetic factors are the major influence on exam results for GCSEs and A-levels. Using data from TEDS, the researchers showed a strong genetic correlation between teacher assessments and exam scores, confirming that both measures were identifying the same pupils and largely measuring the same ability.

Teachers in the UK are required to assess their pupils until age 14, and children sit standardised exams throughout school education in the UK, including SATS at age 7 and 11, GCSEs at age 16 and A-levels at age 18.

Dr Rimfeld said: ‘We are not arguing against testing in general, or that teachers should increase their workloads by adding further assessments. On the contrary, we have demonstrated that current methods of teacher assessment are powerful predictors of success, allowing schools to reduce testing and still monitor progress effectively.’

Dr Malanchini said: ‘Our results should inform the debate about testing during both primary and secondary education. Trusting teachers to implement the curriculum and monitor progress could benefit the wellbeing of pupils and teachers and help to bring joy back to the classroom.’

Previous research has suggested high-stakes exams can impact teachers’ morale as well as pupils’ wellbeing and mental health. The researchers are now looking to study the links between school experiences and mental health among young people.

Abstract of the study:


Children in the UK go through rigorous teacher assessments and standardized exams throughout compulsory (elementary and secondary) education, culminating with the GCSE exams (General Certificate of Secondary Education) at the age of 16 and A‐level exams (Advanced Certificate of Secondary Education) at the age of 18. These exams are a major tipping point directing young individuals towards different lifelong trajectories. However, little is known about the associations between teacher assessments and exam performance or how well these two measurement approaches predict educational outcomes at the end of compulsory education and beyond.


The current investigation used the UK–representative Twins Early Development Study (TEDS) sample of over 5,000 twin pairs studied longitudinally from childhood to young adulthood (age 7–18). We used teacher assessment and exam performance across development to investigate, using genetically sensitive designs, the associations between teacher assessment and standardized exam scores, as well as teacher assessments’ prediction of exam scores at ages 16 and 18, and university enrollment.


Teacher assessments of achievement are as reliable, stable and heritable (~60%) as test scores at every stage of the educational experience. Teacher and test scores correlate strongly phenotypically (r ~ .70) and genetically (genetic correlation ~.80) both contemporaneously and over time. Earlier exam performance accounts for additional variance in standardized exam results (~10%) at age 16, when controlling for teacher assessments. However, exam performance explains less additional variance in later academic success, ~5% for exam grades at 18, and ~3% for university entry, when controlling for teacher assessments. Teacher assessments also predict additional variance in later exam performance and university enrollment, when controlling for previous exam scores.


Teachers can reliably and validly monitor students’ progress, abilities and inclinations. High‐stakes exams may shift educational experience away from learning towards exam performance. For these reasons, we suggest that teacher assessments could replace some, or all, high‐stakes exams.

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