Avoiding a repeat of the 2020 Exam Grading Debacle

Controversial grading systems led to widespread anger and spectacular U-turns in last summer’s GCSE, A level and IB exams.  Amid protests from students, teachers and opposition parties, there were concerns over why computer algorithms were dictating final results.  Criticism ranged from the artificial inflation of grades to many children from disadvantaged backgrounds being unfairly penalised by the process.  It is therefore unsurprising to see a careful deliberation about how best to arrive at a process this summer which is fair to as many students as possible.

The evolving picture of the grading process has been published by the UK’s Department for Education here, and by Ofqual, the regulator of the awarding bodies, here.  To date, we know that teachers are required to use a range of evidence to make a judgement of the grade at which a student is performing.  Among other things, assessment evidence may include: work produced in response to assessment materials such as past papers or similar materials; coursework; internal tests taken by students; and records of their progress and performance over the student’s course of study.  Schools are expected to bear in mind when the evidence was produced, what the student was asked to do, and how the evidence was produced.  Individual special educational needs will also be considered by teachers in arriving at their holistic judgement.

In the UK, the deadline for schools to submit teacher-assessed grades is 11th May 2021 for the IB and 18th June 2021 for GCSEs and A Levels.  Schools have individually formulated their own proposals for internal grading based on the guidance.  A survey of a number of top independent boarding schools has revealed that they will set formal assessments during the month of May, allowing students to demonstrate their level of current attainment, rather than relying on old data points or classroom work.  In some cases, these assessments are compulsory – particularly for GCSE Level students – but optional tests are also being put on for students who are looking for the opportunity to secure a set of results that reflects their ability.  Teachers are able to include more question choice and use a slimmed down syllabus in recognition of lost learning time during the pandemic.

The situation regarding qualifications taken outside the UK, including the IB and international iGCSEs is quite different.  The IB offered schools a “dual route” so that they could determine which worked best for their region: written examinations, where they can be administered safely, or an alternative pathway using a combination of internal assessment coursework and teacher-predicted grades.  With more than 70% of respondents reporting to the IB that they could offer written exams, most schools in Asia have opted for this route while in the UK, schools chose teacher-assessed grades due to the second National Lockdown.

Results and Appeals
This year, results will be published on 5th July 2021 for the IB, 10th August 2021 for GCSEs and 12th August 2021 for A Levels.  The Government has made it clear that every student will have the right to appeal their grade if they so wish and that grades can go up or down as the result of an appeal.  It has also stated that appeals are not likely to lead to adjustments in grades where the original grade is a reasonable exercise of academic judgement supported by the evidence. Ofqual is anticipating a significant number of appeals, hence the earlier publication of results this year to leave a longer time for appeals to be processed.

Fair Grades?
Ofqual’s chairman, Dr Ian Baukham, has admitted that grade inflation is inevitable with teachers setting the grades even if they act with complete professional integrity.  However, exam boards are expected to scrutinise an individual school’s results where there is a particular cause for concern. This could arise from a board official noticing that a school’s grades are far higher than in previous years, or from a whistleblower raising a complaint about a particular school’s processes.  It is in this spirit that UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, proclaimed the plans for teachers to grade pupils was a “good compromise”, but it remains to be seen if this year’s process will indeed be as “fair and durable” as he suggests.