GCSE and A-level exams: Ofqual tells us all you need to know

The 2022 exams start next week – but they won't be the same as before. Everything you need to know is right here
13th May 2022, 6:00am
Grainne Hallahan

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GCSE and A-level exams: Ofqual tells us all you need to know

https://www.tes.com/magazine/analysis/secondary/gcse-and-level-exams-ofqual-tells-us-all-you-need-know
Ofqual, exams

Exams are back after a two-year hiatus, and although you may be pleased to see them, you would be forgiven for feeling a little confused about how they differ from normal years'.

Students are sitting the same papers as normal, but some have been adapted. They'll take them in test conditions, but a selection of subjects have crib sheets. They are awarded grades, but they'll be more generous than usual.

Confused? Don't worry. We have everything you need to know in one place, directly from Jo Saxton, Ofqual chief regulator, who sat down with Tes to exclusively review this year's exams details.  

Different content, different timetable

There have been a number of nods to the difficult situation this year's exam cohorts have found themselves in. 

"GCSE English literature, history, ancient history and geography students have been given a choice of topics, and consequently reduced their content," explains Saxton. 

All other subjects were given advance notice of exam topics to focus their revision in February 2022.

"In GCSE maths, students will be provided with formulae sheets, and they will be able to use equation sheets in GCSE physics and combined science," Saxton adds. 

No extra changes will be made between now and the exams, she confirms.

She also explains how, and why, the exam timetable has been structured differently this year.

"GCSE and A-level exams will begin on 16 May and finish on 28 June," she says. "The Joint Council for Qualifications has produced a timetable you can check for more details.

"Where there is more than one exam paper per subject, those papers will be spread further apart than usual. In the event of a pupil becoming unwell, this should allow the student to still sit some of the exams for the qualification and meet the one component requirement to be awarded a grade."

Many students might have been hoping that the questions on the exams themselves might be easier this year, but Saxton says that isn't something they should bank on.

"There was no intention to make the papers easier than normal," she says. "We don't approve the papers that the exam boards have written; we regulate the boards if they have made mistakes with the papers."

In fact, Saxton adds that "Ofqual has never seen an exam paper in advance of a student sitting the paper". 

"We do go through the sample papers when the papers are accredited, and the boards write their papers using their sample papers as a blueprint," says Saxton.

What counts as a 'special consideration' this year?

"Special considerations" are used when unexpected things happen during the exam period. Saxton explains what counts as special considerations this year.

"If a student is unwell with coronavirus or any other illness and has to miss their exam, then a Joint Council for Qualifications self-certification form 14 needs to be completed," she says.

The guidelines say that this form should be filled out by both the student and a parent or carer, and then returned so that it can be verified by the school or college (referred to as the "centre") before being submitted to the relevant exam board as part of the special consideration application.

Advice from JCQ also says that students will not qualify for special consideration for long-term illness or other difficulties during the course affecting revision time, unless the illness or circumstances manifest themselves at the time of the assessment. Special considerations will also not apply to students who have been affected by staff shortages.

Marking and grading

When it comes to the marking of the exams themselves, Saxton says it is very much "business as usual".

"Marking will happen as it would in any pre-pandemic year. All the papers will be marked by examiners according to mark schemes," she says.

However, we know that grades awarded in 2022 will use boundaries set at around a midway point between the distributions seen in 2021 and 2019, the last year when public exams were sat.

Ofqual has said this is to reflect how 2022 is a "transition" year during which students have still suffered disruption as a result of Covid-19.

"In many ways, the awarding process won't differ from normal. It's a tried-and-tested and well-established process that is being put back in place," Saxton explains.

"Then deciding the grade boundaries will happen, led by senior experts and examiners," she continues. "And the difference this year is that we have instructed the exam boards to put the structural generosity in place this year that will protect students who are at, or close to, a grade boundary - giving them the benefit of the doubt and allowing them to secure the grade they would have, had the pandemic not happened."

How will the structural generosity work? Is there a fixed number of grades they're looking to award?

"There is no quota of grades and we have not predetermined grades," says Saxton. "What we have asked the boards to do is mark as normal, and then apply the grading process."

"As in every other year, boards will be using a range of data and examiners and subject experts will be looking at a range of work. What we're not asking them to do is [expect students to] meet the same performance standard as in previous years, so we're lowering the bar a little in terms of how well students have to do in their exams."

In 2019, the percentage of students achieving a grade C or above equivalent was 69.9 per cent. This figure rose to 78.8 per cent in 2020 when centre-assessed grades (CAGs) were used, and again to 79.1 per cent when teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) were used last year. 

However, Saxton says that, at this point, they don't know what figure we can expect to see in 2022. Working off a fixed statistical point, she says, would be impossible owing to the unpredictability of the scoring in exams.

"We don't have a precise midpoint figure in mind because the 2019 figure came from hundreds of different individual specifications and was all aggregated," she explains.

"It's helpful to think of it in the context of a specific specification. In something like GCSE English, there are 200 available marks, and 600,000 students taking the qualification. The result is thousands of students who have totalled 72 marks, and thousands of students who have totalled 73 marks. 

"This means that when you set the grade boundaries, the percentage of students who have achieved a 4 and above might go from 70 per cent of students when you set it on one mark, and then jump to 73 per cent of students on the next mark. And obviously, you can only set grade boundaries at whole marks.

"You will get this natural variation - and you get that for every specification, for every syllabus, and that is all put together.

"It will be somewhere in the middle, but it depends on where the individual grade boundaries are set and how that flows through to the overall results."

The big question is: how will it ensure that this adjustment is fairly applied across all subjects and exam boards? After all, even within subjects, not all boards gave the same advance information or made the same adjustments to their specification.

Saxton says they'll be using data and checks to make sure it is all done as fairly as possible.

"We're using the data to make sure that the boards all do the adjusting consistently," she says. "The boards have got data that will help them to see if this year's cohort is more able than previous years' and how the different entries for the boards compare, and so that data helps them lower that bar in a consistent and fair way.

"Within a subject where there might have been small differences in the advance information because the structure of different boards' syllabuses are different - that's where the data will come in and even that out. Some students might feel that one exam board has 'better' advance information; we will be using the data to even that out as it's really important that there is fairness in the subject."

What sort of data will they use? Saxton says they pull from a range of sources.

"We will use the national reference test data, the key stage 2 Sats, and the boards will have information on how well students have performed on different questions on the paper, how the average marks compare with previous years' - and this helps [examiners] judge if the papers are more or less demanding than in previous years." 

But why make these changes at all? Saxton says she hopes they will protect those on the cusp.

"What we hope the midpoint will do is protect those students who would otherwise just miss out on a grade," she says. "If you're a solidly 5 student, you'll still get a 5. If you are close to a boundary, these checks and balances will help protect them and keep them there. It isn't going to push you up a grade." 

As outlined above, the adjustments that have been made to the subjects differ quite a bit. Some students might wonder if the subjects with the least adjustments might then receive the most movement when it comes to setting grade boundaries.

Saxton says that it would be impossible to say at this point, but that this isn't the plan.

"We can't say for sure what the outcomes will be until the exams have been sat," she says. "The intention was that when you looked across the suite of a young person's qualifications, you would be levelling the playing field across the average of eight GCSEs.

"In terms of Ofqual and the work of the boards, the examiners aren't allowed to say, 'oh, that's been made much easier for you so we're going to grade it more harshly'. They have to look at each subject in and of itself with all the checks and balances and parameters that are put in place to protect students."

What if a student misses an exam?

All these adjustments can only go so far: what happens if a student misses the exam because they're unwell?

"Nothing happens automatically," says Saxton.

"If the board only receives a third of the work from one student, the only marks that student would get would be those marks, unless the school has made an application and requested special consideration."

If guidance is followed and the paperwork completed, then each case will be considered, says Saxton.

"For students for whom the school requests special consideration, then that piece of work they completed would be used to produce a scaled-up grade, but in context," says Saxton.

The context is important, she says, because not all parts of the course are "equally" hard, and students will often score higher marks in one unit than they will in another.

"The decision on the grade would happen after everyone else had been marked," she says. "For example, people generally do better on coursework, so it would be unfair to scale up a coursework mark - it would be adapted in line with the performance of the rest of the cohort on that piece of coursework."

Saxton also adds that "there needs to be an unavoidable reason why they missed the exam" for special consideration to take place.

Changes for French and German

Every year there is a perception that MFL is graded more harshly than other subjects, so in this year of grading adjustments, will Ofqual be looking to give languages an extra boost?

Saxton says it's a bit more complicated than that.

"Ofqual has done a lot of work into subject comparability, and it has concluded that although there is a strong belief that MFL is graded more harshly, it isn't in fact the case," she says. "The tricky bit is to make sensible comparisons between subjects, for example, French and history."

However, it's not all bad news: there is going to be some boosting going on.

"We did a lot of work looking at comparisons, and before the 2020 exams were cancelled, we said we would make an adjustment to the way French and German are graded, to bring them in line with the grading in Spanish.

"Obviously 2020 didn't allow that to happen, but this year our intention is to make that adjustment again, and to reflect at the end of the summer to see if they are in line," she says.

The additional work for schools

On the topic of workload, Saxton says that she would like to express her thanks to everyone who has been involved in rolling out the adjustments for this unusual exam series.

"I would like to give my and Ofqual's thanks to the sector and everybody working in schools out there who has done so much to support students, and work with us on trying to understand the adaptations in place to support students," she says. 

"I know it's been a massive amount of work, but hopefully together we are all able to help students through some of the disruptions they've suffered due to the pandemic."

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