GCSEs 2021: Why scrapping exams next year was binned

Regional grading and teacher assessment are out – five changes to exams that have been rejected and why
3rd December 2020, 1:52pm
Catherine Lough


GCSEs 2021: Why scrapping exams next year was binned

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Long-awaited plans for the 2021 exam series were published today - contingency papers for those who miss exams, generous grading and exam topics revealed in advance are all part of the measures that will be taken to mitigate the impact of the pandemic on students.

However, many had suggested other ways to level the playing field next summer that didn't make the cut, such as '"optionality" in papers. This morning, chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey set out why.

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1. 'Optionality' in papers

In a new research paper from Ofqual, it is revealed that introducing optionality in exams - where students can either choose questions within a paper or choose to drop papers in a specification - would introduce unfairness in the system.

Research based on different specifications in GCSE English literature, GCSE history and A-level sociology found evidence that some optional questions in papers are easier than others.

In GCSE history in 2019, the difference in grades between the hardest and easiest questions amounted to over 35 per cent.

"Evidence from a range of qualifications shows that students who took the easiest options could achieve up to a grade higher than students who took the most difficult options," Ofqual's briefing paper found.

And the paper found that higher ability students and students from less deprived backgrounds are more likely to choose easier options than less able students and students with higher levels of deprivation.

Given that any optionality would be introduced into specifications "at pace" for 2021, Ofqual said it "might well further disadvantage the groups that it would be intended to help".

In a statement from Ofqual chief regulator Dame Glenys Stacey, she added that: "Some have suggested more optionality in exams. This could mean a wider choice of questions on exam papers - a greater choice of topics, for example. This sounds appealing, but sadly the evidence is that disadvantaged or less well-prepared students often make poor question choices.

"And it is near impossible to set optional questions at a precisely comparable level of difficulty. This can result in some students having to meet a higher standard than other students, which is clearly unfair. 

"Alternatively, some have suggested students could be allowed to drop a paper in a particular subject. Many subjects have two or three papers in each series. But this is also not as straightforward as it sounds. The four exam board specifications are often structured differently, so dropping a paper can have a differential impact depending on the exam board. That creates an uneven playing field and is simply not fair."

2. Cancelling exams

Dame Glenys said that using an alternative method of assessment to exams in 2021 would risk bias against students.

"Research suggests that when we assess students using a different method, bias can creep in. That is not always the case, but the result can be that bright students from disadvantaged backgrounds or students with special educational needs or disabilities suffer the most," she wrote.

She added: "If teachers were to allocate grades this summer instead, they could, for example, assume that students who have been away from school would not do very well, when that may not be the case for everyone. It will be different for each student. Exams can allow students to pull it out of the bag."

3. No regional grading

Dame Glenys said the idea of regional grading - setting different grade boundaries for different regions of the country - "would create different kinds of unfairness because the experience within regions is not universal", and that this idea had been ruled out.

"Even in areas with high infection rates, there are schools where students have access to high-quality remote learning, and some schools report not being behind at all," she said.

"Similarly, in less affected areas, there are students who will be further behind than many students in worse affected areas because they have been self-isolating with minimal remote learning in an environment that is not conducive to learning," she said.

4. Teacher assessment

"Some will ask why teacher assessment is not figuring more prominently. If teachers were to assess students and suggest a grade that students might have been expected to achieve in an exam, it still would not make up for that lost learning," Dame Glenys said.

"And, as the summer of 2020 showed us, moderating teacher assessments fairly is difficult to do in a way that commands the confidence of parents and students."

5. A set of 'mock' exams

While students will be able to sit contingency papers after summer 2021 if they miss exams for Covid-related reasons, there will not be a series of mock papers sat earlier in the year.

"Some have suggested a full series of mocks should be carried out in the spring so that students have a grade they can bank. But that is not really what mocks are for," Dame Glenys said.

"Each school will use them in a slightly different way - sometimes they are used to find out what students do not know so that you can knuckle down and revise better before the actual exams. Some mocks are done very early in the year and administering them takes valuable time that could be used for teaching.

"Students whose education has been the most disrupted need the most time to catch up. We are not sure they would appreciate early spring mocks."

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