Education

A Level Results: the Government had an impossible task

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Governments across the UK have been slated for the way in which results were calculated for students taking Highers in Scotland and A Levels in England and Wales.

Yes, some aspects of issuing grades to students could have been done better, but overall the government was stuck between a rock and a hard place. Asking authorities to issue grades to students, having sat no exams was a practically impossible task.

The UK government asked teachers to submit predicted grades that they thought pupils would have achieved if exams had gone ahead. As a Head of Department in a state school myself, I know how agonisingly hard teachers worked with their school leadership teams to devise as accurate grades as possible.

Regardless of how hard teachers worked, the government rightly needed to implement a moderation procedure to ensure results would be approximately in line with historical trends to ensure the integrity of results. They also needed to ensure that schools could not enter unrealistically low or high grades, especially due to the lack of (if any) scrutiny of schools during this process, from my own experience at least.

The moderation process took into account subject historic performance at a school, the performance of the student cohort and the need to ensure a sensible number of students received each grade nationally.

A sort of postcode lottery was created for some schools as a result because schools that have a good history of exam results tend to be in wealthier areas, leading to results in schools in more deprived areas being downgraded more than their wealthier counterparts.

The Scottish Government responded by allowing all students to revert to their teacher grade, leading to an unprecedented year-on-year increase in the Highers pass rate of 14%. This is a worrying level of grade inflation that may affect how seriously some students’ grades are taken.

The UK government performed far better, albeit with inevitable issues still present. 96.4% of grades were the same as, or within one grade of their teacher predicted grade. The most deprived students gained more C grades and above than last year and these same students have seen a year-on-year increase in university offers of 7.3%.

For the anomalous students where the algorithm did not accurately issue grades, an appeals process was made available if a student’s mock exam result was significantly different to their final grade.

Yes, this was announced last minute, but it was better than the system it replaced. Overall patterns also show that 2020 will be approximately in line with previous years, ensuring that the integrity of grades has been broadly maintained.

As a teacher, I saw some of my most disadvantaged students achieving higher than they expected and getting into high quality universities to study high quality courses. Universities were understanding that students had had a challenging time.

Despite the mainly positive results, there are some improvements that could have been made. To remove all doubt over whether there is a class divide, the government should not have used historical trends of schools to moderate grades. Just because the previous year in a subject achieved a certain set of results, does not mean that this year would have done the same.

From experience, different year groups can perform very differently to each other and schools can make significant improvements within 12 months. To ensure the issuing of grades was fair and consistent between schools, there should have been a much more thorough and active quality assurance process run by the exam boards.

The exam boards should have questioned how schools were devising their grades and ensured similar processes were being adopted across different schools. They could also have focused more on the schools that previously have given inaccurate predictions when compared to actual results. This would have mostly solved the moderation issue where some schools may have been too lenient or harsh when issuing grades.

Finally, there have been issues surrounding grades issued for subjects with larger cohorts, such as Maths, versus those with smaller cohorts, such as Further Maths. This has resulted in some peculiar discrepancies being reported, such as students who were predicted an A in Maths and an A in Further Maths, but in fact received a C-grade in Maths, but retained the A in Further Maths.

The government pulled off an impossible feat where grade integrity has been maintained, significantly more disadvantaged pupils will be attending university, and teacher grades were closely kept to.

Recently, it was revealed that students in England would be given their teachers’ estimates unless the algorithm gave a higher grade.

One thing is for certain, we will never take the opportunity to sit examinations for granted again.

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