Exams 2021: How international schools are tackling TAGs

How can international schools ensure teacher-assessed grades are fair - and don't attract complaints, asks Dan Worth

Dan Worth

Exams 2021: How can international schools ensure teacher-assessed grades are fair - and don't attract complaints, asks Dan Worth

As international schools grapple with the various different models being proposed by international exam centres, there is one issue lying dormant that could explode later this year: grade appeals.

Because, just as in the UK, many international schools are engaged in a process of providing grades for their students derived from teacher input: no algorithms or centre assessment this year, thank you very much.

This is what many said they wanted after the fiasco of summer 2020.

However, without algorithms and centre assessments this time around, could there be a risk that, come results day, there will be a queue of angry parents demanding to know why their child has only been "given" a B, not an A, or a C and not a B and so on?

Exam results 2021: The risk of teacher assessment

This is not a far-fetched idea when you consider that international schools' parent communities are likely to be highly engaged and active, and likely more than willing to ask tough questions – and expect answers.

So what is the answer? Data and evidence – and lots of it, according to Mark Leppard MBE, the headmaster of the British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi and current chair of British Schools in the Middle East.

“My leadership team discussed this very early on and as schools here in Abu Dhabi have not had much face-to-face learning, we knew teacher-assessed evidence may come into call at some stage,” he says.

He explains that this meant the school pivoted immediately at the start of the pandemic to start to ensure that it was regularly gathering “evidence points” that can be used as “clear data points” when assessing students and their work.

“It is based upon what has been taught and all has been recorded for the past 11 months. This was our insurance policy to ensure that all students would be able to receive the grades deserved of their work,” he adds.

The importance of schools gathering data

Charlotte Brunton, a secondary English department head at the British School of Gran Canaria, also says that gathering data in this way has been key.

“Throughout the year, students have been uploading marked tests and assessments to Google Classroom, should we need them for evidence,” she tells Tes.

“We have been completing this in class to avoid parental interference. This will also provide helpful evidence, should parents query grades as we are able to show progress over time.”

Matt Topliss, British School principal at El Alsson British and American International School in New Giza, Egypt, says once data is gathered, senior leaders must work together to analyse the potential grades that will be awarded.

“No decision will be made in isolation. We expect all teaching staff to produce datasets and evidence and there will be moderation in department and by the senior team – including myself.”

He says this work will include particularly looking at students who sit close to grade boundaries and really analysing why they are either right at the bottom of a grade boundary, and therefore should they be moved down, or at the top of a grade boundary and should they move up.

“Generating enough data around assessments means we can look at these situations and really analyse why a student is being placed in a certain grade boundary and feel confident in that [decision],” he says.

How much evidence do you need?

But how much data do you need? One major exam? Eight short assessments? Mock exams or coursework?

There is no right answer but a senior leader at a major international school in China provided Tes with an insight on how they arrived at what they considered the right amount of data to inform teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) last year:

“As soon as we knew we would need to submit grades, I (as head of centre) met with the secondary leadership team and we agreed a process that required:

  • A minimum number of agreed evidence points from heads of department (we settled on 8-10).
  • Evidence points had to be discussed and agreed in subject teams.
  • Evidence points had to be approved by SLT.
  • Evidence had to be moderated (internal and/or externally).

“Once all evidence and the TAGs were submitted internally, the SLT then spent several days reviewing and moderating across departments," they added.

This sounds thorough – but they admit it was not an easy process: “In all honesty, this was a lot of work for all secondary teachers and certainly added to their workload and stress.”

However, it was worth the effort: “The outcome was a really solid set of TAGs that we felt very secure about and were in line with previous attainment and predictions.”

Integrity matters

This is especially important, says Mr Leppard – not just for teachers to feel integrity in what they have done but also to be able to give parents and pupils a sense that the grades they received are based on real work and there is no sense of teacher bias.

“We have regularly communicated with students and parents, explaining the importance of high-quality work in order to give the school as much evidence as possible to assess the students' true potential,” he adds.

Indeed, Mr Topliss says transparency like this is vital throughout this process. “We send every announcement we get from the exam boards to the parents and explain what it means and the next steps we will be taking,” he says.

“As part of this, we always make plain how important it is for students to attend everything so we can generate that evidence – saying, ‘We cannot produce grades if we don’t have the evidence so they need to be in lesson' and doing that with parents helps them understand more, too.”

Taking a firm stance 

This also means being honest with parents that any attempt to influence teachers over TAGs will be viewed seriously.

“We’ve made it clear to parents that any attempt to influence teachers would be seen as malpractice by the exam board,” he says – adding that using the exam board to underline this is a good reminder that teachers are not producing grades purely for pupils out of thin air, but to stringent board expectations.

And, of course, all of this means parents or pupils cannot resort to blaming an individual teacher for a grade they are given based on either personality clashes or accusations of not being rigorous enough with testing

“It’s about making it clear that these are teacher recommendations informed by evidence and not a simple decision made by, say, the chemistry teacher who you think doesn’t like you,” Mr Topliss adds.

The need to ensure that there is no pressure put on schools by parents also extends to how internal assessments are run, as Ms Bruton outlines.

“Sixth-form mocks are currently taking place this week and we did have some parents contact to request for the week to be changed, given the recent Pearson announcement. They felt students required additional time given the mocks could be very valuable evidence," she says.

“The school takes quite a hard line with this kind of communication and simply said no."

Internal considerations

This need for a strict line on grade-related work and processes also extends internally too, as Ms Bruton explains.

“Last year, grades were awarded on a very confidential basis with lots of locked spreadsheets,” she says.

“Heads of departments entered grades and teacher-parents of exam-aged children within the school were not granted any access to the spreadsheets. I imagine the same will happen this year.”

This a lot of new processes for international schools to put in place – but, of course, there is a silver lining that while TAGs are technically a new model, they are not that far removed from the CAGs used in 2020.

As such, all these plans have more or less been run before and so there is a quiet confidence they will deliver results. For example, the senior leader in China says that they only had 10 complaints from their entire parent body in 2020 and these were all dealt with amicably.

“We kept students and parents fully informed of the process, without sharing any TAGs. As a result, we had very few queries/complaints from parents/students about individual subject grades – I’d say less than 10 in total. These were all quickly resolved without extended discussions/debate.”

No doubt other schools will be doing likewise and hoping their process from last year work just as well – or they have been enhanced again to ensure that the new of teacher-assessed grades are properly understood by the school community.

No clear path yet

But there is one area where schools have less control and are still waiting for answers: which assessment process awaits?

Some schools know they are facing TAGs while others are still preparing for exams – but not entirely convinced they will go ahead or unsure what they will do if the pandemic makes sitting exams impossible, while others face the possibility of either scenario, but for now don’t know which.

And many are facing all three of the scenarios at once if they use a mix of curricula across their year groups and across subjects.

All this means schools are having to prepare some pupils for exams, others to be assessed for TAGs or a mix of both – and all while knowing they may have to switch from exams to TAGs at the last moment.

None of which makes school plans around assessment easy.

“How a level playing field will be assured is a mystery to me,” adds Mr Leppard.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

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