No public exams this year by Barnaby Lenon

Which of these do you think will have most influence on a pupil’s A-level or GCSE grades this year?

  1. How hard they have worked.
  2. How intelligent they are.
  3. The grades their teachers predict.
  4. The results got by the pupils in the school last year.

Correct answer: 4

In August GCSE and A-level pupils will be getting their results. Given the state we are in, it is understandable that many people are talking about these results as if they are ‘real’.  But it is important for all concerned – schools, universities, pupils, parents – to know that they are not real.

Ofqual have devised a system which means that grades will be ‘assigned’ based on five statistics – the teachers’ predicted grades, the teachers’ rank orders, the individual pupils’ prior attainment (Key Stage 2 SATs or GCSEs) the individual schools’ previous exam results in each subject, and comparable outcomes.

Comparable outcomes simply means that the same proportion of students will get each grade as last year. So, for example, if last year 50% of pupils taking Greek A-level got a grade A or A* then this year 50% will, even if the cohort is less good. This system was designed to protect the interests of those taking reformed GCSE and A-level syllabuses because research tells us that performance dips when a new or reformed qualification starts. Comparable outcomes ensures that nationally pupils get results which are similar to previous cohorts even if their marks are lower.

The key question is – what weight will be given to each of these five measures? We do not yet know the answer because Ofqual is still looking at the data for the 2018 and 2019 exams and working out which combinations of the five statistics produces the most accurate version of the actual results.

But we can be sure of three things. Teacher predicted grades will have limited weight because Ofqual knows they are unreliable. Comparable outcomes will have a huge impact.  Rank orders devised by schools will be respected – but from the pupils’ perspective it is only the grades they get that matter, not ranks.

A school’s previous exam results, considered subject by subject, will be very important. For A-levels, this will include historical data from 2017, 2018 and 2019. For GCSEs, data from just 2018 and 2019 will be considered.

I was on the board of Ofqual for six years and it is an extremely good organisation, possibly the best in the world of its type. It is full of real experts in exam management, people who believe in accuracy and fairness. What they have been asked to do is a terrible thing – to come up with exam grades in the absence of any actual exams. It runs against their every instinct.

Some schools may be under the impression that the results will reflect their predicted grades. That will be true of larger subjects in larger schools with consistent results over the past 2-3 years and where the pupils this year have prior attainment which is similar to last year.

Otherwise it may not be true. Where the numbers taking a subject in a school are small and/or have swung about in recent years the chances of getting the ‘right’ grades in that subject are lower. Where this year’s students are better than last year, there will be disappointment. Where they are worse than last year there will be undeserved success.

As Ofqual itself says: This is not to dispute the view that in some cases individual students or cohorts of students may have done better than the statistical model suggests if the examinations had taken place this summer. Some teachers will have a high degree of confidence that they know this would have been the case. However, because we cannot distinguish between cases where cohorts would and would not have performed better in the exams than the statistics suggest we cannot take into account teachers’ views, however strongly held, in setting grading standards nationally.

Ofqual has said that they will ‘be sensitive’ to small centres and small subjects so greater weight MAY BE attached to centre-assessed grades for them.

Ofqual has also said that if a school feels that its pupil demographic was different this year to previous years, the centre might be allowed to produce evidence for this at the appeal stage. But this is not quite decided.

What does ‘different demographic mean’? It could mean more or fewer BAME pupils than in the past, more or fewer SEND pupils, more of fewer EAL pupils.

Where a pupil did not take Key Stage 2 SATs (most of those at private schools) or did not take GCSEs (some overseas students taking A-levels) prior pupil attainment cannot be used in assessing the assigned grades. Again, this is more likely to yield an unhappy result.

But for those whose university place rests on obtaining specific grades there may be good news. Because so many overseas students will no longer be coming to university in the UK this year, there will be plenty of places for UK students. A student who misses his offer grades may still find himself admitted to the many cash-strapped universities.

Schools and universities have to appreciate that the assigned grades this year are not real grades. Imagine a student was required to get A*A*A for a high-demand course at a top university.  He was predicted to get A*A*A* but actually gets A*A*C. The C is in Design Technology, a small subject in his school and one where the results have been wildly mixed in the past three years. Under these circumstances it would be incredible if the school did not contact the university with all the evidence they can muster to make the point that this assigned grade C is simply wrong – a product of a limited algorithm.

Ofqual say: The grades awarded to students should have equal status to the grades awarded in other years and should be treated in this way by universities, colleges and employers.  This is well-meaning but actually the most unfair thing about assigned grades would be if university admissions tutors thought they were fair.

There are a surprising number of ‘private candidates’ who take A-levels in particular.  These tend to be students who were disappointed with one or more grades last year and are resitting this year. They will not be awarded a grade unless the centre with whom they have registered for the purposes of taking the exam is able to give them a predicted grade and, hardest of all, fit them into the rank order of their current Year 13 students.  They will only be able to do that if they have adequate evidence of the current quality of the private candidate’s work. If they haven’t got that, the student will not be submitted for an assessed grade. They will get nothing.

For students who get nothing or who are very unhappy about their grades there will be only limited scope to appeal.  They will have to take the actual exam in the special sitting which should happen in the Autumn 2020.  A-level results could be known by Christmas in which case they may be able to enter some (not all) universities in January 2021.

These Autumn exams will be very important to the futures of some pupils. Unfortunately non-exam coursework will not count except in the case of Art, where there will be a 15-hour practical paper. So for someone doing design technology, for example, all those deck chairs and lamps they made will play no part in the Autumn series. That limits the validity of the Autumn exams for all those subjects which should include coursework but this year will not. Practical, coursework-based subjects are among the many victims of Covid-19.

Barnaby Lenon

Dean of Education, University of Buckingham

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