Are inflated grades the fairest option for 2021 exams?

Ofqual implying teachers should grade GCSEs and A levels against the usual standards is a problem, says Kevin Stannard (article first published in TES)

inflated grades

In its proposals on GCSE and A level, Ofqual has done its level best to plot a sensible course out of the crisis that the Department for Education created when it refused to plan for the contingency that exams may not happen in the summer.

The devil is in the detail, of course. There are lots of loose ends, the most dangerously dangly of which is the haziness about precisely how exam boards will ensure comparability between schools in terms of grades.

The proposed schedule leaves little time for thorough external moderation and standardisation (in the absence of an algorithm it’ll involve a lot of toing and froing with actual examples of work). And, tellingly, it has allowed much more time for appeals. None of this inspires much confidence.

Still more worrying are the hostages to fortune, the most egregious of which is the proposal that students should be graded according to the standard at which they are performing by the end of the course.

GCSEs and A levels 2021: The challenge of grading students

This makes a lot of sense on the face of things: unlike last time, it encourages Year 11 and Year 13 students to maintain momentum right up to the point when they would ordinarily have taken the exams, and this is welcome.

It also avoids the counterfactual conundrum of last summer, when teachers were invited to imagine how students (who were told to down tools before Easter by the DfE) would have fared had they taken the exam under normal circumstances in the summer.

Grading students according to how they are performing in May or June makes this year’s process appear more logical than last year’s. There will – it is proposed – be exam board-set papers that teachers will have to mark themselves.

While this will substantially increase teachers’ workload, it will at least allow them to establish an objective indicative grade, which they can then sense-check against the basket of prior evidence (mock results, substantial specification-related work, non-examined assessments, etc). This data could then be used to inform the final grade.

Many students will not have been in a position to complete all relevant pieces of work, or been present for all tests. And not all work would be of equal indicative value. Added to that, marks are not easily convertible into exam grades.

So it follows that the most important stage is that of teachers applying professional judgement when converting the performance data into exam grades.

What standard should we be applying?

Teachers asked to use that judgement need to know precisely which standard they should be applying. And here is the most salient problem in the current proposal.

Ofqual implies that this standard is the established one for the two qualifications in normal years. But the secretary of state (Gavin Williamson at the time of writing) has stated categorically that this cohort must not be disadvantaged, compared with last year’s cohort.

This can only mean that the grade distributions for 2021 must mirror those of 2020, not the less-stellar ones from prior, normal, years.

So Ofqual needs to clarify that it is indeed the inflated 2020 standard that teachers should be applying in 2021. Presumably, mark schemes and guidance around the forthcoming exam board papers will be adjusted to allow for this.

But even applying 2020 standards doesn’t ensure fairness, because the learning loss this time around might well be greater than last year. After all, we still don’t know when students will be back in school. So results might logically be expected to be poorer than in 2020.

It would seem to be impossible to reconcile Ofqual’s wish for an objective assessment of actual achievement with the DfE’s desire for comparable outcomes with 2020. Comparable measures of achievement between the two years are unlikely to give rise to equal grade distributions. Something will have to give.

There are no simple solutions. The only reasonable hope is for clarity and constancy in decision-making, from the official response to the consultation until those fateful days in summer.