2021 exams: 3 questions that we still need answers to

Concerns were raised about grade inflation last summer, but how worried should we be about the impact on students sitting exams in 2021?
7th November 2020, 6:00am


2021 exams: 3 questions that we still need answers to

Gcse Resits: Plans For Summer Exams Revealed

Grade inflation was at the forefront of the row over examinations in the summer of 2020. But how much do we really understand about how grade inflation works? And what are the implications for our students if the same thing happens again this summer?

The problems started last year, when, for the first time since formal public exams began in 1858, no students sat summer exams.

Without physical exams to standardise, the Department for Education requested that all schools submit a rank order and a set of centre-assessed grades (CAGs). These grades were meant to be standardised by the exam boards using their statistical model.

However, this proved more difficult than anticipated. The CAGs inflated grades so much compared to the 2019 results that the statistical model was used to moderate them down.

The problem here is that exam performance is incredibly variable and notoriously difficult to predict. You never know who will have a good day or a bad day in the exam. Sometimes, the least likely student can go into an exam and outperform every other student you've ever taught before. 

Panic, and then a U-turn, ensued and we ended up with students receiving a mixture of their centre-assessed grades and their calculated grades.

So, where does that leave us? The 2020 results are now at a record high, as a combination of both the statistical model and centre-assessed grades are being used. The grade inflation we wanted to avoid is now worse than had we just gone with the centre-assessed grades alone.

What's more, the grades we have are not necessarily the grades that teachers would have awarded if they had known how all of this was going to plan out. CAGs were decided based on the understanding that those grades would then be moderated by school leaders, and matched to the historical data of the school, to ensure they were realistic and accurate.

Schools always expected to justify these grades and have them moderated by the exam board. However, because of the last-minute U-turn, CAGs went out in their "raw" form. And this is bound to cause problems for the 2021 exams. 

So, what should we expect to happen with grade inflation in 2021?

The mechanics of exam grading 

First of all, it's really important to be clear about what grade inflation is, because it isn't as simple as a year-on-year increase in grades.

In exam marking, we don't use criterion referencing (where the work is marked to fixed statements) or norm referencing (where fixed percentages receive each grade). Instead, we use something more like cohort referencing, where the ability of the cohort is judged using National Reference Tests, and their key stage 2 Sats results to ascertain whether the year group is more, less, or as able as previous year groups.

'Awarding' to maintain standards

Once the marking period ends, the awarding bodies set their grade boundaries in a process called "awarding". This is overseen by Ofqual. Each grade boundary will be different because although exam boards endeavour to maintain the same level of difficulty, there will always be small variations of challenge between the papers.

The awarding process is there to ensure standards are comparable from one year to the next; it avoids grades being awarded that don't reflect what similar students produced in previous years. During awarding, the examiners compare scripts from the current exam series to previous years, and also look at the data of the cohort's performance at KS2 Sats, to judge how they might be expected to perform in this exam.

Where did it go wrong last summer?

However, none of this happened last summer, as we had no physical exams and only the CAGs and the National Reference Tests to go on.

As a result, while a quarter of entries were given at least a grade A at A level in 2019, this figure was 13 per cent higher in 2020. And at GCSE, two-thirds of entries in England were graded 4 (the modern equivalent to a grade C) or above in 2019, but this year the figure is more than three quarters

The 2020 cohort, therefore, have grades that are not comparable to previous years. The decision to do things this way was taken in order to balance the need to maintain standards over time, with the need for students to progress onto their next step. But what does this mean for the students of 2021?

Why calling for no grade inflation is actually quite complicated

Assuming exams go ahead next summer, if we return to using 2019 grades as our point of comparison, we come up against problems for university entry. The students of 2021 will be competing against anyone from the 2020 cohort who chose to take a year out before starting university.

We know that the 2020 grades have been inflated, so how can universities accurately compare applications from students from the two different cohorts? Will grade requirements differ depending on what year they sat their exams?

We also have the huge problem of the inconsistency of learning for the cohort of 2021. For some students, this academic year has been characterised by absence: both student and teacher. However, these disruptions are not blanketed, so how do we compensate those students who have had their learning disrupted? 

In addition to these concerns, there are three key questions that we still need the answers to.

1. Will we end up with students who have grades that do not reflect their ability?

Nick Gibb says that Ofqual will be working to ensure grading takes into account the "unevenness of learning" during lockdown.

But how can we ensure that students are not being awarded grades that do not accurately reflect their knowledge in a subject, or their readiness for the next stage in their academic career?

2. Is it possible to address the unevenness of learning?

How will it be possible to take the unevenness of learning into account when experiences vary not just from school to school but also differs from student to student?

Broadly, the schools in the North of England have suffered higher absence rates than the south, but the impact of coronavirus upon student and teacher absence has been experienced on a sliding scale across the country. So, how can grading take the nuance of that unevenness into account?

3. Alternatives to exam grades

How will we manage this grade inflation in the long term? For instance, one solution might be to award A levels in 2021, but only full GCSEs in English, maths and science, and certificates for participation for the other subjects to limit the extent of the grade inflation and to more accurately reflect their school experience this year.

At this point, we don't yet have the answers to these questions. But it seems that the full extent of the impact of last summer's exam chaos still remains to be seen.

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