Analysis: Can schools return to 2019 GCSE grades?

Covid has disrupted exam results for two years with fears that grade inflation could be ‘baked’ into the system. Can this be undone?

Catherine Lough

The best of Tes Scotland's features in 2019

When GCSE and A-level grades are released in a few weeks’ time, it is highly likely that there will be a rise in grades above those we saw last year and vastly different to the typical spread of exam results seen before the pandemic.

Last year – when the use of teacher-assessed grades was eventually approved – it resulted in more than a quarter of GCSE entries achieving a grade A/7, and the proportion gaining a top grade 9 rising to 6.4 per cent.

At A level, following the government's U-turn on grading, 14.3 per cent of entries were awarded an A* in 2020, and 38 per cent were awarded an A grade or higher, compared with 25 per cent achieving an A grade or higher the previous year.

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This year, when teacher-assessed grades have been awarded based on evidence from mock exams and classwork, the situation is likely to be similar, adding to growing concerns from some in the sector about what this means for grade inflation in the long term. 

As early as December 2020, just one month before the government’s cancellation of the 2021 exams, MPs from the Commons’ education select committee wrote to education secretary Gavin Williamson calling for a “route map” out of grade inflation, with committee chair Robert Halfon cautioning against inflation being “permanently baked into the system”.

And these warnings have only increased over time. In March, Ofqual's interim chair, Ian Bauckham, said that the likely further rise in the grades in 2021, if repeated year on year, would “cumulatively erode the value of the qualification” and become unsustainable over the long term.

Arguably, one could say that a generation that has lost so much during the pandemic deserves the mitigation of higher grades than their predecessors.

There is also a question about the extent to which the existing system of comparable outcomes that operated before the pandemic, and ensured grades could hold steady from one cohort to the next, was actually fair to students and their work.

The public dismay over the impact of an algorithm on 2020’s results appeared not to take account of the fact that grading distributions are always statistically adjusted to some degree – and that a third of students have typically failed to get good pass grades year on year in GCSE maths and English through this system.

But if the current grade levels did remain in place, then a perception that there has been untrammelled grade inflation could carry costs, with employers and universities left increasingly unsure of the value of awarded grades or what they communicate about pupils’ abilities.

In February, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, wrote that “a little movement in results” this year would be a “price worth paying” but he also wrote that, “this year is a one-off, designed not only to deal with the impact of the pandemic but also to avoid the disaster of last year’s results”.

As Barnaby Lenon, a former member of Ofqual’s standards advisory group, told Tes, the whole impetus for the switch to a numerical grading system at GCSE in 2015, as well as Ofqual’s introduction of comparable outcomes in 2011, was in order to secure equality between cohorts and prevent uncontrolled grade inflation.

“One of the things that Ofqual always believes, and I believe, is that you’ve got to be very fair to each cohort, and that is one reason for the comparable outcomes approach to grading – that you don’t want one year to have much better grades than another unless they are genuinely better,” he says.

A return to 2019 grade distributions may therefore be inevitable over the long term. But Tes understands that there is also the possibility of a “reset”, too – that we decide that, given the unprecedented disruptions wrought by the pandemic, it is worth overhauling the grading system in its entirety – in recognition of the fact that exam cohorts for several years down the line just cannot be compared with those who took exams in 2019.

‘Generation Covid’ grades?

The idea of a reset of some kind is a possibility. In May, Mr Bauckham told Tes that “we do absolutely have to consider whether or not the grades that young people would be getting in 2022 can be compared, if they’re called the same thing”.

He gave the example of a grade 6, equivalent to a GCSE grade B under the old alphabetical system. Is a 2022 grade 6 the same as a grade 6 in 2019?

“Is it the same thing or have we changed the standard? So fairness between cohorts from one year to the next is another really important question for will be something that we will need to make a firm decision about going forward,” he added.

“I think, in the longer term, if you’re going to radically change the standard between examinations, then calling an exam the same subject and calling a grade the same thing is potentially misleading. We will need to establish something that is comparable across time for grades and qualifications that are called the same thing,” he said, adding that an entirely new post-Covid grading system was a question “for thinking about in the longer term”. 

This week, it was reported in the i newspaper that this option is being seriously considered by ministers, with a new numerical system at A level on the cards, as well as the possibility of higher grades at GCSE above the current top grade 9 to adjust for inflation.

This would allow standards to be tightened up while avoiding confusion about what grades are worth depending on the year they were awarded.

But there are a number of risks associated with this approach.

One is that, following the grading changes at GCSE in 2015, to add yet further changes after a period of upheaval risks further confusion for students, universities and employers.

Mr Barton told Tes that it “strikes me as utter madness to contemplate changing the grading system”.

He added: “I think it carries quite a lot of risks with it. It’s taken a lot of people quite a long time just to get their heads round the whole 9 to 1 grading system at GCSE. This idea that we start playing around with the grading system yet again – and essentially allowing comparable outcomes to drive the system – just runs the risk of confusing everyone.”

The other concern, he said, “is that you could run the risk of actually stigmatising young people; that suddenly they think they are the guinea pigs yet again, with a system that’s being changed, and basically pointing a large finger at them for being different from their previous cohorts,” he said.

It is also worth noting that an Ofqual spokesperson told Tes “we have no plans to change the GCSE or A-level grading system”.

Mr Barton notes that for young people who have already missed out on teaching time, this might be a particularly bitter pill to swallow, in not only being victims of disrupted learning but subsequently “victims of some untried and untested shiny new grading system”.

“That probably isn’t going to play particularly well with young people,” he added.

The other issue with a new, expanded grading system is that, while possible, it can also, Tes understands, lead to compression of grade boundaries, resulting in an increase in the number of appeals. New GCSE grades – such as a 10 at the top end or an A** or new, higher numerical grade under a revised A-level system – would stretch grade boundaries, so that while they might allow selective universities a better degree of differentiation, they would also result in more students either just above or below grade boundaries, making it a proposition that is “technically quite difficult to pull off”.

And some have raised concerns that a wider range of grades at GCSE could put pupils under unnecessary pressure. Sally-Anne Huang, high master of St Paul’s School in London and chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, told Tes that the existing 9 to 1 grading system “isn’t sufficiently embedded at GCSE, especially with the pandemic”.

“I think the granular quality of all those numbers can put more pressure on children in terms of their mental health,” she added. Ms Huang suggested that a grade 10 could create more “high stakes” points in the grading system, so that pupils would worry and “lose sleep” not about if they were a grade 6 or 7 but whether they were a 9 or 10.

A new grading system would have the effect of drawing a line between results next year and pre-pandemic grades but it could also be something of a stop-gap measure. Tes understands that any proposed grading system changes for next year would likely only be temporary, as we are six years on from the last set of curriculum reforms, and exam specifications and grading will probably be adjusted in three to four years’ time regardless.

Mr Lenon says that when numerical GCSE grades were introduced, “it would have been logical for grade 1 at GCSE to be the highest grade, but the reason that they didn’t do that was because they thought, ‘in the future there might be grade inflation and we want to be able to add a 10’, and therefore 9 became the highest. so you could add a 10”.

An expansion of GCSE grades at the top is already, in effect, built into the system, therefore, but he cautions that a similar switch to numerical grades at A level would prove unpopular.

“With A level, I think that we’ve had now alphabetical grades for many years, 50-60 years, and I think it will take a lot for people to swallow a change from alphabetical to numerical, personally – people won’t like it, rightly or wrongly,” he says.

“But I understand why it is something that ought to be considered if they’re unhappy with the grade distribution that we are going to get this summer, where, instead of 20 per cent getting A or A*, there could be 35 per cent or could be more than that.”

He adds that it is unlikely to happen “overnight” and that, “knowing that Covid might well be depressing the results of a proportion of pupils for at least two or three years, they may decide to simply swallow the inflated grades for a little while, one two or three years”, so that a grading reset is unlikely before 2024. 

Or a switch back to 2019?

The alternative, sources close to the discussion say, is either an immediate switch back to 2019 grading distributions in one year – which would be politically unpalatable – or, what is more likely, a phased dialling back towards the 2019 levels over a period of years, although this solution carries its own problems, too.

Mr Lenon says: “We all understand why there has been grade inflation; it’s the price we’re paying for Covid. But it’s a bit upsetting because it means that the calibration that had been established has now been lost.

“And it’s very difficult to see how you walk back down to the 2019 grading system because it would mean that all subsequent cohorts would get worse results than their predecessors. And so the view that, I guess, is being taken is that ‘we will have had these reformed grades for about 10 years, why don’t we rethink them anyway?’”

He adds that a rethink could even help the “forgotten third” – the proportion of pupils who do not pass GCSE maths and English every year.

If the 2019 grading returned, he thinks, it must be phased, “otherwise it would be too unfair”.

“You don’t want to suddenly disadvantage a group – suddenly the A-level results slump, suddenly the GCSE results slump. If you’re going to walk back to the 2019 grade distribution, which generally people were happy with, you’re going to need to do that over at least three years.”

In terms of how this might work, sources close to the discussions suggest that over three years, grade boundaries could be pitched between the 2019 distribution and what is likely to be the highest point for grades, 2021. Over time, pupils would have been less affected by the disruptions of the pandemic and would have had more normalised teaching, which could allow boundaries to gradually shift back towards the status quo ante of 2019.

Of course, even a phased process back to 2019 grading patterns has its own complications. It would mean further years where each cohort receives a different pattern of grades that were not comparable with the previous year’s results. Of course, this has already been the case for two years and could be seen as merely recognising the new reality.

But given the public discomfort with 2020’s algorithm, the idea of tinkering with the grading levels each year could prove politically costly. Current Year 7 or Year 8 pupils, for example, might well argue that they have lost a significant proportion of their education to Covid when they come to sit their GCSEs, and so why should their grades be measured in the same way as the 2019 cohort, particularly when their more direct competition in Years 9 and 10 will have been judged more generously.

Discussions of the details of any of these options are still far away. Sources tell Tes that the current focus remains on getting to the end of August successfully.

But Covid has created both short- and long-term problems with grading, and it seems unclear exactly how these can be resolved without some students losing out.

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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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