To query or not to query? That is the exams question

Querying grades could improve schools’ Progress 8 scores, but pupils lose out if their grades go down. Yvonne Williams asks, can we be sure that justice will be done?

teenager upset about exam results

Another summer, another set of results. And another round of queries, challenges and appeals

There’s a certain inevitability about this pattern, especially for teachers of “subjective” subjects, and for teachers of English most of all. Every year, Ofqual’s more transparent reports indicate that the most radical divisions of opinion over the marking – and the highest number of successful appeals – are in English literature. 

If only we could be sure that the Reviews of Marking and Moderation, newly instituted from 2017, really did act as a safety net to ensure that justice is done.

United in frustration

A letter in Tes magazine last month from Ali Constanti, a head of English in a Suffolk school, encapsulates the problems facing heads of English each year – all the way from the erratic results to the dissatisfactions felt with the later stages of the appeals process. Schools with genuine grievances suffer from a system that is policed by the exam boards themselves, and where there seems minimal chance of any board changing the results.

At such moments, students, their teachers and headteachers are united in their frustration but can go no further. 

Conversations over the years among heads of English reveal that this is not an unusual situation. However, there is not always such unity over whether to appeal against inaccurate results. And is putting the choice with the student the fairest way to proceed for all the parties involved in the post-results situation?

Cost and consequences

Take, for example, the case where students receive good GCSE grades but ones not as high as expected. The grade may be perfectly adequate to move the student on to the next stage of education, namely A-level courses, so why should they put themselves through the stress of a post-results query? The cost is usually borne by the candidates; and the fear (and consequences) of the grade going down outweigh the hope of a higher grade, no matter how much their performance may have deserved it. 

From this perspective, it makes sense to stick with the published result and enjoy the rest of the holiday. For highly able students, there is every chance that A-level performance will eclipse the GCSE result. And who worries about GCSE grades once degrees have been awarded?

For school leaders, heads of department and subject leaders, there is, understandably, a greater sense of urgency. Teachers always feel a strong sense of injustice when they know that the results are wrong, and incredible frustration that their hands are tied when it comes to seeking redress.

Losing grades

But they are ever mindful of the possibility of “losing” grades if they appeal, and the awarding organisation marks the returned scripts more stringently. No one wants to see that happen, especially not when convinced that the original mark should have been higher.

When, having seen the scripts and analysed the marking, subject leaders are convinced that the result should have been two whole grades higher, it’s time to wonder whether the GCSE and A-level system is sufficiently robust to act simultaneously as a measure of candidate achievement and school performance. 

It’s bad enough feeling that individual students have been under-rewarded. But, at departmental level, it has an impact on numbers taking the subject at A level. Who wants to do a subject where marking is perceived to be detrimentally unreliable? What school is going to put such a subject at the heart of an A-level curriculum leading to university entrance on highly competitive courses? And how many school leaders will feel happy with a set of results that may be undervaluing their students’ performance when the school leadership team is accountable for Progress 8 scores? 

Throw of the dice

Whatever the injustice, for some schools there is no possibility of risking vital funds on Reviews of Marking and Moderation (RoMMs). Risking the loss of several hundred pounds on the throw of a dice is not viable cost-management. Things need to change. But how? 

Perhaps school leaders should have the right to query results for the sake of their Progress 8 score. What if they found those candidates’ grades went up? Schools have seen as much as a third of a cohort go up one grade on review. But would candidates be able to claim the upgrades for their own purposes even if they had not chosen to appeal? If the results went down, would candidates be protected because they had not initiated the review?

Obviously, Ofqual doesn’t like the idea that overly high grades should be wrongly attributed to candidates and schools through over-marking. But both exam boards and the regulator seem worryingly complacent about the scale of under-marking. 

Is it time to acknowledge that the published GCSE and A-level results in some “subjective” subjects (such as English literature and history) can be so radically inaccurate that they should simply not count in the Progress 8 scores? Or to downgrade the importance of exam results in any measurement of school performance, and accept that Ofsted’s move to curriculum focus and a more holistic approach to the inputs as well as the outputs is the best way forward? 

Or perhaps it's time simply to acknowledge the shortcomings of the current system of one-chance exams at the end of the academic year: a system that resembles much too closely the deeply unsatisfactory penalty shoot-outs in football tournaments. This is a system that annually delivers random inconsistencies that have a disproportionately adverse effect on an individual school’s standing within its local community and its position in national league tables. 

It’s time to lower the stakes entirely – or to return to systems of making work over the course of the specification count for more.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the south of England

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