Will teachers really decide students' grades this year?

We thought exam grades would be based on teacher assessment – but that's no longer clear, writes Yvonne Williams

Yvonne Williams

Coronavirus: Will teachers really decide on GCSE and A-level results this year?

Teachers seldom need confirmation that they have most of the accountability for (and little of the power over) what happens in the education system.

The awarding of this summer's GCSE and A-level grades is another example of this imbalance. In the minds of the public, grades will be awarded by teachers' assessments of their students.

Ofqual regularly explains that after schools have submitted grades and rank orders - for example in its "Letter to Students" - the grades will then be modified by the exam boards' statistical processes.

But the unfortunate first (and lasting) impression on the minds of the public is that teachers' initial submissions matter most.

Schools minister Nick Gibb’s comments before the Commons Education Select Committee on Wednesday 27 May did nothing to dispel this impression.

To be fair to Mr Gibb, his responses about possible bias against certain students were reasonable and empathetic.

He acknowledged that calculating GCSE and A-level grades was a “big burden” on teachers and that “given the professionalism of the teaching staff, they will be as fair as they possibly can be within human frailty". So far so understanding.

But when you read the details of Ofqual’s report released last week following its consultation on "Exceptional arrangements for awarding qualifications this summer", it all seems very different.

Coronavirus: The impact on GCSEs and A levels

The implication that the “human frailty” is all on the teachers’ side is erroneous. 

Leaving aside the fact that exam results aren’t always accurate, we have to recognise that every year students who have underperformed for months or even years defy all expectations and perform spectacularly.

Others, who seemed rock-solid, fall below their target. Sometimes – and sometimes not – investigation of returned scripts reveals that the exam board awarded the right grade.

In short, outcomes will always be imperfect because students are human and frail, too – or more robust than expected.

Ignoring reality

Furthermore, Mr Gibb did not acknowledge the imperfections of the supposedly objective statistical modelling of the exam boards in his responses.

It cannot possibly cater for all eventualities – though Ofqual has made a good attempt at papering over the cracks.

In its much longer (180 pages) Analysis of Consultation Responses, Ofqual records the concerns it received from small schools with cohorts that are shaped differently every year.

There are also schools where hardworking teachers and students have reached a higher standard than ever before, with an expectation that this year’s outcomes would have an upward turn. And schools with fewer than three years’ data.

Ofqual's Consultation Decisions document acknowledges all of these cases and more, yet still gives this judgement:

"The statistical standardisation model should place more weight on historical evidence of centre performance (given the prior attainment of students) than the submitted centre assessment grades where that will increase the likelihood of students getting the grades that they would most likely have achieved had they been able to complete their assessments in summer 2020." (page 10)

Far from clarifying the situation, this decision only blurs it. How can the exam board or the regulator know whether the “historical evidence” is more reliable than the “submitted centre assessment grades”?

And what about those 'improving' schools?

"Having considered all the options available to us in the circumstances of awarding grades in summer 2020, we have decided to adopt our proposal that the trajectory of centres’ results should not be included in the statistical standardisation process." (page 11)

All those hopes and hard work for nothing.

Why make teachers responsible?

Implied in Mr Gibb’s answers to questions from the Education Select Committee was also the assumption that the grades submitted by schools would play the most influential part in determining this year’s results.

The truth is that teachers' judgements will be poured into moulds shaped by historic whole-school performance data.

Perhaps what is hardest to swallow is that there was really no need for teachers to agonise, as they have done and are still doing, over grade boundaries if this is the case.

So why put teachers in the firing line by making them responsible for grades at all?

During the first stage of the process – pre-results – teachers and schools are given some protection by Ofqual's rules, though even this is couched in terms of fault and guilt:

"The majority (81%) of respondents agreed with our proposal that inappropriate disclosure of centre assessment grades and rank order information should be investigated by the exam boards as potential malpractice … We are considering with the exam boards how they might investigate evidence or allegations of malpractice in the unusual context of this summer." (page 6)

At least, then, schools can ward off questions from students and parents at this first stage by referring to Ofqual’s "exceptional arrangements".

After results day, however, there is no protection for schools:

“The Information Commissioner’s Office has recently endorsed our view that the exemption for data generated through the writing of exams will extend to centre assessment grades and to rank order information this year. This will allow 40 days after results days for responses to subject access requests for this information.

"A number of teachers and schools and colleges asked that the information be permanently protected from disclosure. This would require a change to legislation by government." (page 21)

If it would require a change to legislation to protect schools from a vexatious complaint, why not make that change?

Complaints and recriminations

At some point post-results, then, candidates pursuing an appeal can see the grades and rankings teachers gave them.

If this school information falls short of their expectations there will inevitably be a backlash from students and parents.

It doesn’t take much of a leap of the imagination to foresee protracted email exchanges and recriminations. 

Would it be so very much to ask the government to draw a line under the proceedings for this year on results day?

For those students who want an autumn exam, let this be at the earliest opportunity.

Let schools focus on the future and get on with rebuilding their learning communities.

Yvonne Williams is a head of English and drama in a school in the South of England

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