Is this the best way to minimise 2021 exam unfairness?

How do we make sure that GCSE and A-level results in 2021 aren’t a repeat of last year’s disaster? John Tomsett has a plan

John Tomsett

A finger tips a pair of tiny scales

A-level results day 2020 was the worst day of my professional career. We usually have a handful of disappointed A-level students to support but, that day, we saw 73 out of a cohort of 140 disappointed. It was distressing for everyone.

I never want to go through such an experience again. That is why I was so bitterly disappointed when the government announced that GCSE and A-level examinations were not to go ahead as normal this year.

And, as seems to be the MO of this administration, the media have been briefed and are speculating about how we will establish grades for our students this summer. All the proposals I have seen so far raise more questions than they answer.

Striving to minimise the unfairness

We face some challenges around consistency, which are insurmountable. The pandemic will have affected schools and individual students differently. Each subject team in each school will have covered the specification content in a different order. Each school will have collected different assessment data at different times.

We have to acknowledge that, this year, we will just have to accept those inconsistencies, for the sake of our students. All we can do is strive to minimise the unfairness of it all.

What caused such controversy last year was the revelation to the wider world that grades are determined by algorithms. It has always been thus. The trouble was that the grade distributions were kept from schools until after the results were published.

There was no opportunity to challenge the outcome of the algorithm until it was too late. That is why I ended up in a stuffy office for nine hours on 13 August 2020, trying to console student after distressed student.

But we are where we are, as the saying goes. Moaning gets us nowhere. At our school, our assistant headteacher, Mike Bruce, has a cunning plan for grading this summer, and it goes something like this…

A cunning plan for exam grading

February: Working with Ofqual and the examination boards, establish a quota for each grade for each subject at GCSE and A level, for each subject, at each school. This would be based on historic data for the school and for the individual students in each school.

This sounds like a huge task but it is doable. Our vaccination programme has shown that miracles can happen.

March-April: Exam boards publish the grade quotas to each school. Schools can challenge allocations and come to a final position, which errs on the generous side, reflecting the Department for Education’s announcement that grading in 2021 would be as generous as in 2020.

January-April: Students prepare for examinations which, importantly, individual schools create with support from the examination boards, so that they assess students on what they have been taught. Students know what general areas of the specification they will be assessed on. Boards agree the papers.

May: Student sit the examinations.

June: Schools mark and moderate the assessments. All outcomes are in terms of a percentage. Individual departments within individual schools rank order the students according to the students’ examination performance. Where students attain the same percentage, other defined teacher assessments decide the final rank order.

July: Schools match the rank order against the grade quotas and look for anomalies. They send the final grades to the examination boards.

August: Grades are published to students.

This modest proposal has its flaws, but far fewer than anything else I have seen. It seems pointless to argue that these examination outcomes will not be comparable to previous and future years. The comparability boat has sailed. People need to get over that one. We are in the middle of a once-in-a-century pandemic, remember.

Such a model for grading – published swiftly – would calm nerves, establish some certainty and give us all something to work towards. It would have the advantage of utter transparency, compared with the opaque practices of last summer.

Importantly, it would allow our students to progress on to the next phase of their lives with the minimum of distress. They deserve for the adults to get their acts together quickly. We have had a long time to sort out a grading process for summer 2021.

And it might – just might – prevent all of us from enduring another results day from hell.

John Tomsett is headteacher at Huntington School, in York

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