GCSEs 2021: Most schools prioritise 'exam-style' papers

'There's no one-size-fits-all model, and no one thinks any of this is ideal,' say heads over GCSE and A-level grading

Catherine Lough

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Teachers must award grades 'dispassionately', says Ofqual chair

Most schools will give emphasis to exam-style question papers to determine GCSE and A-level grades this year, a new survey reveals.

With grades being awarded through teacher assessment in 2021, schools have been asked to compile a basket of evidence when assessing students' grades.

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Evidence can include assessments based on questions and past papers provided by exam boards, non-exam assessment, other coursework, substantial class work or homework and mock exams taken over the course of study. But some teachers have argued that schools should not run a full series of mock exams in order to arrive at students' grades.

And a survey by the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL) shows that over half of schools – 53 per cent – will be giving greater weighting to exam-style papers than other forms of assessments, while a minority of 7 per cent will base grades on exam-style papers only.

Last month, Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, warned that plans for GCSE and A-level grading this year could lead to  "chaos" and "Wild West" grading.

GCSEs and A levels 2021: 'Making the best of a difficult situation'

And in January, an Ofqual adviser warned of potential "Weimar Republic levels" of grade inflation.

The ASCL said that schools now bear the responsibility for arriving at students' final grades, and that "there is little direction on what types of assessment should be prioritised or the weighting that should be given to them in reaching the overall grade".

While 53 per cent will give more weight to exam-style assessments, over a quarter of respondents – 26 per cent – said grades will be based on a combination of exam-style papers and non-exam evidence, with roughly equal weighting given to both.

Just 6 per cent of schools said more weight would be given to non-exam evidence, and a further 6 per cent reported that grading would be based on non-exam evidence alone.

Where schools were basing grades entirely on exam-style assessments, they said this was because the disruption caused by lockdowns had made it difficult to identify other consistent evidence, and because of the assurance it gave to students that they were all being assessed on the same evidence. They also said exam-style assessments were clearly students' own work.

"Those using a combination of evidence with greater weighting given to exam-style papers felt non-exam evidence could help to inform decisions but the emphasis on exam-style papers provided reliable evidence based on pupils’ own work," the ASCL said.

"Those giving equal weighting to exam-style papers and non-exam evidence felt this approach achieved a fair balance between using exam-style papers while recognising that public exams had been cancelled, and using the opportunity to submit a range of evidence," it added.

For schools giving more weight to non-exam evidence, reasons included that they already had significant evidence on which to base grades, and concern about placing weight on exam-style questions after the cancellation of national exams.

Those opting for only non-exam evidence "felt that teacher judgements were the fairest approach given the scale of disruption over the past year and the variability of students’ experiences of learning over that time", the ASCL added.

Geoff Barton, ASCL general secretary, said: “Schools and colleges have clearly thought very carefully about how they assess students this summer and have made decisions on their best judgement of what represents the fairest approach for their students in their circumstances.

“We should not be surprised about the variability in approaches, given that there are very few parameters about how this should be done and a wide range of differing experiences over the past year.

"We argued for this flexibility so that schools and colleges were free to use their judgement about what best suited their context, and we are not going to criticise it now.

“But it is important that parents, politicians and the commentariat understand that there is no one-size-fits-all model out there, and nobody thinks that any of this is ideal. It is very much about making the best of a difficult situation and awarding young people with grades as fairly as possible so they can progress to the next stage of their lives.

“We understand that the public may be confused by the fact that, on one hand, the government cancelled public exams, and on the other hand, many schools will be using exam-style questions and papers to assess students.

"However, there are sound reasons for this approach and it is important to understand that schools will be formulating these assessments in line with their knowledge of the content their students have been able to cover during the pandemic.

“A big challenge is obviously going to be ensuring that standards are consistent nationally across all these different approaches.

"Schools and colleges will be assessing evidence against common grade descriptors, and there will be internal and external quality-assurance processes. Everything possible is being done to ensure that grades are fair and consistent.

“It is also important to recognise that this process represents an enormous amount of work and additional pressure on schools, colleges and their staff, following on from the tumultuous and extremely demanding period of the pandemic.

It is essential that the government and regulators do everything possible to support them in this very challenging task.”

The ASCL survey was conducted from 19 to 21 April. Most of the 521 responses (77 per cent) were from state-funded secondary schools, while 18 per cent were from independent schools, and the remainder came from colleges, and other types of schools.


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author bio

Catherine Lough

Catherine Lough is a reporter at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @CathImogenLough

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