Exam board 'warned DfE about grading problems in July'

Cambridge Assessment also says it told Ofqual about flaw in grading algorithm – but regulator brands claim 'astonishing'

William Stewart

Warning over GCSE and A-level results: Tim Oates, of Cambridge Assessment, says his exam board issued a warning to the Department for Education

An exam board warned education ministers about serious flaws in this summer’s grading process two weeks before A-level results were published, it is being reported this morning.

Cambridge Assessment, which runs the OCR exam board, has said it approached the Department for Education in July about its concerns over Ofqual’s approach to grading, according to The Guardian.  

The board also reportedly warned Ofqual about a serious flaw in the way it applied its grading model, the day after A-level results were released, and called on it to delay and rerun GCSE results.

But the exams regulator, which will be facing questions from MPs over this year's controversial GCSE and A-level results process this morning, has hit back, describing Cambridge’s claim as “astonishing” and “incorrect”.


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The claim that the DfE was warned about the problems a fortnight before the A-level results were released may make things difficult for education secretary Gavin Williamson, who originally said he only became aware of “real concerns” about A-level grades after results were published on 13 August.

GCSE and A-level results controversy

Tim Oates, Cambridge Assessment’s group director of research, told The Guardian that those at the DfE, including Mr Williamson’s advisers and the schools minister Nick Gibb, were keen to hear about the problems that Cambridge had uncovered when it approached them in July.

“I cannot fault their reaction – the DfE responded swiftly and energetically, taking our analysis extremely seriously,” Mr Oates said.

Cambridge Assessment’s internal research team identified anomalies that were punishing “outlier” students – talented individuals in large schools with poor track records – as well as middle-ranking students who were assessed as gaining Cs but were inexplicably being given a failing U grade by Ofqual’s model.

“This year’s approach – like all assessment – had technical limitations,” Mr Oates said. “We investigated those we identified through targeted research quickly and forensically. Two issues – outliers and the odd pattern of results – passed an evidential threshold and we contacted the DfE the moment this happened.”

Cambridge Assessment’s warning in July reportedly led the DfE to get Ofqual to broaden the scope for appeals from schools, allowing them if “the grades of unusually high or low ability students had been affected by the model” or if they received a “very different pattern of grades” compared with previous years.

Yesterday Mr Williamson told Parliament that it had been decided that even this appeals process was not enough.

“Ofqual had put in place a system for arriving at grades that was believed to be fair and robust,” he said. “It became clear, however, that there were far too many inconsistent and unfair outcomes for A-level students, and that it was not reasonable to expect these to be dealt with, even through a boosted and enhanced appeals process.”

Evidence submitted by Cambridge Assessment to the Commons Education Select Committee – ahead of its questioning of Roger Taylor, the Ofqual chair, today – says Ofqual was warned about the flaw in its algorithm by the exam board the day after A-level results were published.

The evidence reportedly states: “14 August: Cambridge Assessment informs secretary of state’s office and Ofqual’s chair that the likely cause of the anomalous centre grades appears to be the way in which Ofqual had implemented its national standards correction to maintain standards. The same issues were likely to arise with GCSE results.”

Cambridge Assessment’s evidence also says: “We suggested to the DfE that GCSE results should be delayed and rerun, and we made Ofqual aware of the detail of our analysis and of our policy recommendations. Ultimately, Ofqual took another course of action.”

Ofqual told The Guardian: “These are astonishing comments. Cambridge Assessment and OCR were totally key to the development, testing and quality assurance of the algorithm right from the beginning through to delivery. Their warning about A levels came a day after results were released and was incorrect.

“It also came as Ofqual itself was developing a possible appeals process. Ultimately, it’s clear that no appeals process would have provided a satisfactory outcome to this affair while still retaining national standards. That is why Ofqual ended up returning to centre-assessed grades.”

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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