How fair can this year's GCSE grades really be?

The solution to the cancellation of exams is a patchwork of botches that does no one justice, says Yvonne Williams

Coronavirus school closures: Will GCSE and A-level grades this year really be fair?

Well, here we are. Domestic exams, if not officially cancelled, are at least delayed by a few months

The solution? A patchwork of botches: predicted grades, school assessments, reference to mock exams, all to be compiled by teachers and moderated by exam boards. Superficially, this seems the fairest way to go. Anyone not happy with the results can appeal or take an exam in the autumn.

The trouble is that none of these is an effective summary of potential – even taken in total.

It’s easy to think that mock examinations will be the best reflection of ability under pressure. To some limited extent, this may be true. All students take the same paper and are under the same controlled conditions. Within a school or college, therefore, it’s possible to provide fair results. 

But do all schools take the same paper with the same level of demand? Some schools will set questions that reflect the stage of the journey their pupils are at – and that is a good thing. Why demotivate students early on?

Coronavirus: The impact of exam cancellations

Mocks taken at different points of the year will reveal varying levels of maturity. Schools will set mocks any time from late November to late March. (As I was getting off the hovercraft on the morning the news of exam cancellations broke, one passenger said that his child’s mocks had just finished.) The time for complete revision mid-course is very limited, even if – as in our school's case – the mocks are set after Christmas. 

The more learning experience and knowledge students accumulate, the better they respond to questions. Maturity and the adrenaline produced by the actual national test play an enormous part in bringing out the true best performance.

And then, of course, there are the brilliant slackers: the ones who coast all year doing just about enough to get by – and sometimes less than that. You know that, in the real thing, they will shine and match the predictions from that MiDYis or FFT test done in the distant past on an autumn day at the start of Year 7.

But they will now be judged on the minimal efforts they have put in. No doubt many of us feel that true justice will be done. If they didn’t motivate themselves and didn’t work as hard as their peers, why should they have the glory of the top grades? Maybe this year the conscientious will have their day – and why shouldn’t they?

An end not yet in sight

The writing that has taken place in classrooms over the past two years has been provisional, focused – narrowed, even – on an end not yet in sight. Often it will have been chopped down into smaller pieces and practice paragraphs, to fit different assessment objectives.

Essays will have been thinner in substance, as students get to grips with the dimensions of their subject and the technique. Some teaching will produce some horribly uniform answers, as schools programme their cohorts in the “best technique”. 

But who can know what students will do when there is no one to guide them towards the mechanistic response targeted at a single assessment objective? And – more tellingly – when students in subjects like mathematics and sciences will have to untangle the questions before applying the appropriate scientific or mathematical method?

The problem of external statistics by which performance is judged is that even the key stage 2 tests that peg down the GCSE results are flawed. The figures are skewed by the fact that not all pupils take the test. 

And there is the age-old problem of MiDYis, ALIS and similar data. Read the ALIS post-A-level reports on a student or a cohort, and you will see the caveat at the bottom of each page of the CEM ALIS data reads as follows: “There is an uncertainty of approximately one grade either side of all predictions.”

The implication of this often-overlooked disclaimer is that academic departments could be anywhere on the spectrum of one grade over, spot on, or one grade under prediction when grades arrive on results day. 

On top of all this remains the problem of the accountability framework. The pressure on teachers will be intense. Parental and managerial expectations for each child will be high. Domestic exam boards have done away with predicted grades since 2015, because they no longer trust schools.

A possible avalanche of dissatisfied students

How will schools handle appeals? Don’t forget the unedifying new layer of appeal in non-examined assessment for A level. If a student is unhappy with the way the result has been assessed, they can appeal, and a third party then has to adjudicate. 

Will we have a local system to deal with a possible avalanche of dissatisfied students and their families? After all, if Ofqual and exam boards have washed their hands of local appeals over non-examined assessments on the grounds that such things stretch them to the limit, how are they going to cope with the dimensions of the assessment operation proposed by government?

And there are going to be real problems of standardisation, even for external experts. This is the point at which we need to consider who should be working at the centre to moderate the results arrived at by schools operating in a whole range of circumstances nationwide.

We need those with current classroom experience who oversee the preparation of whole cohorts year on year: the curriculum and subject leads. They know what might be achievable and what has been over-taught. They can judge the level of demand in tasks and school exam papers. They can, therefore, moderate across centres.

Could there be a role for current examiners in checking standards in samples of work if needs be? Many will be grateful for the opportunity to recoup some of the money they have lost through the decision to abandon external examinations this year.

We have to acknowledge that we will not be comparing like with like, especially at A level, because of the variety of specified content and composition of papers. This is where awarding organisations will probably meet remotely to moderate.

And then, of course, there is the RoMMs (review of marking and moderation) to put into place. 

The only thing we can be certain of is that it will be a long and intensive assessment summer. 

Yvonne Williams is head of English and drama in a secondary school in the South of England. She has contributed chapters on workload and wellbeing to Mentoring English Teachers in the Secondary School, edited by Debbie Hickman (Routledge)

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