Analysis: Are teacher-assessed GCSE grades a good idea?

What are the pros and cons of an approach that is making a coronavirus comeback this summer?

Catherine Lough

exam

In response to the coronavirus crisis, exams regulator Ofqual has announced that GCSE and A-level grades will be calculated this year using a "broad range of evidence, including teacher assessment and prior attainment".

However, teacher assessment comes with both pros and cons, with some suggesting it can give rise to grade inflation.


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Indeed, this week, a statement from the Association of School and College Leaders cautioned that teachers should not give pupils the benefit of the doubt when assessing them, for example by "awarding more grade 4s than they might otherwise have obtained".

However, ASCL's statement also suggested that the use of teacher assessment this year could point the way towards an "alternate universe" for those unhappy with GCSEs in their current form.  

So what are the benefits and disadvantages of an assessment approach that some are now hoping could make a permanent return to our qualifications system? 

Pros

Some research suggests teacher assessments could be as reliable as exams

A recent study has concluded that teacher assessments are as reliable as standardised tests in monitoring students' performance.

Researchers Kaili Rimfeld, Margherita Malanchini and Robert Plomin found that teacher assessments are a close match to standardised test scores when it comes to predicting GCSE and A-level performance.

Using data from 10,000 children born from 1994-96 in the Twins Early Development Study, the researchers compared how teacher assessments at key stages 1, 2 and 3 in the national pupil database accurately predicted performance at GCSE and A level with how external Sats tests predicted achievement.

Teachers submitted their assessment of pupils' performance based on national curriculum levels. These assessments, alongside their Sats scores, were recorded in the National Pupil Database.

The researchers found that both external Sats tests and teacher assessments were both equally accurate in determining later performance. This suggests teacher assessments are no more biased than standardised scores.

The study also found that teacher assessments were strongly correlated with Sats scores at key stages 1 to 3.

However, it should be noted that the teacher assessments at ages 7 to 14 were lower-stakes than teachers providing a final GCSE grade for their classes this year, as one teacher pointed out on Twitter. While teacher assessments were recorded at each key stage, they were not used in school accountability measures. 

 

Teacher assessments are ongoing

As experts have pointed out, teachers assess pupils on an ongoing basis, while high-stakes exams can lead to "teaching to the test", as well as higher rates of mental health problems among young people, who feel under pressure to perform in high-stakes tests. 

Teacher assessments are cheaper

Exams are very costly to run and administer – schools could save precious resources through using staff assessments of their pupils instead to monitor progress.

 

Cons

Teacher assessments have been skewed in the past

While the research cited above shows teacher assessments can be as accurate as exams, this has not always been the case, especially when the stakes are higher.

In 2012, Ofqual published a report justifying its intervention in the grading of English GCSE papers after it found "unprecedented clustering around perceived grade boundaries" for English GCSEs

The GCSE grades, which were modular at the time, involved combining grades for controlled assessments with the marks achieved in the exam.

Where teachers knew the grade boundaries for a pass – a grade C at the time – Ofqual could see that some appeared to have awarded marks for controlled assessments accordingly to ensure pupils' overall marks were over the grade boundary for a pass. 

Ofqual's then chief executive Glenys Stacey said the regulator had been "shocked by what we have found".

Ofqual also justified the removal of science practicals as a graded component of reformed science A-level qualifications because of concerns over cheating and grade inflation for practicals. 

In 2013, Ofqual said it had found numerous instances of teachers over-marking pupils' performance in practicals, while the nature of carrying them out over different times during the term meant it was almost impossible to keep set tasks confidential.

That said, Ofsted has announced that the GCSE grades calculated this year will not be used for school performance data.

Teachers might feel obliged to give pupils the benefit of the doubt over a grade where their school's reputation and position in the league table and future depends on it, as might their own job, especially given the pressures of performance-related pay. If this year's grades do not count towards accountability measures, there might be less reason for bias in assigned grades.

However, accountability is not the only reason teachers might give a pupil the benefit of the doubt over a grade. 

Teachers could still be biased because of a desire to help their pupils, in the knowledge that a pass grade in English or maths at grade 4 could make the difference between pupils attending the college or course of their choice or being forced to resit the qualification.

Giving a pupil a perhaps realistic assessment of a grade 3 for English or maths will be very difficult for teachers who know that pupil as an individual, whereas an exam, by virtue of being anonymised, might be more objective.

Teacher assessments can be biased against disadvantaged pupils

There are also concerns over teacher bias in assessments, as disadvantaged pupils and those with SEND tend to receive predicted grades and teacher assessments that underestimate their potential.

Teacher assessment adds pressure to staff

Some teachers have commented that they feel under pressure in having to make a judgement for their classes this year. Teacher assessment can also create more workload – completing many controlled assessments in the legacy GCSEs, for example, was more labour-intensive than having pupils sit one high-stakes exam.

 

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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