Some farmers graze their cattle on the village common.
At first, all is well: the cattle fatten; the farmers prosper. But as more cattle graze, the grass thins and the farmers become impoverished.
That’s The Tragedy of the Commons, the inevitable catastrophe resulting from the overuse of a finite resource. What makes it tragic is none of the farmers is being greedy; on the contrary – each is behaving totally rationally, in their own legitimate, self-interests.
But if the farmers fail to realise the need for mutual agreement, the outcome is ruinous to everyone.
A new tragedy?
Fast forward to June 2020. Has another tragedy just happened?
Not for farmers, but teachers. And the finite resource is not the grass on the village common, but the number of top grades allowed by Ofqual and the SQA.
This year, as we all know, schools have submitted their “centre assessment grades” and the corresponding rank orders.
Right now, the exam boards are busy “standardising”, so as to “make sure that grades are fair between schools and colleges”, and “that at a national level, grade distributions are broadly in line with other years.”
To achieve these two objectives, the boards will compare the results of the standardisation to each school’s submitted grades, and “if grading judgements in some schools and colleges appear to be more severe or generous than others, exam boards will adjust the grades of some or all of those students upwards or downwards accordingly”.
Unilaterally and without consultation.
An unclear process
Most will agree that ensuring that grades are fair across the country is a good thing, but how this will actually be achieved is unclear.
As a result, no teacher, school, or college, has been able to replicate the process locally, or know their grading plans abide by the "rules".
In the absence of explicit rules, what might happen?
All teachers, of course, wish to do the best for their students.
But pulling the other way are the words “broadly in line with other years”, probably interpreted by many as code for “no grade inflation”, and implying that this year’s distribution needs to be about the same as the average over the past three years for A level, and over as many years as GCSE has been graded 9 to 1.
So, it’s quite likely that a conscientious teacher would have calculated that average, and used the resulting number as a guide.
Time for some maths
For example, suppose that for GCSE biology, which has been graded 9 to 1 for two years, a school had seven grade 6s in 2017 (cohort, 27), and three grade 6s in 2018 (cohort, 23).
That’s a total of 10 grade 6s for a combined cohort of 50, or 20 per cent. The 2020 cohort is 22, and 20% of 22 is 4.4. Ah.
Students come in whole numbers, so, strictly, that rounds to four. But it’s very close to rounding to five, so let’s go for five…that’s “broadly in line”, isn’t it?
At which point the teacher notices that, in 2017, seven students out of 27 – that’s nearly 26% – were awarded grade 6, and this year’s cohort is just as good.
So, submitting only five candidates for grade 6 is a bit mean: better to submit 6, which is still only 25%, smaller than the 26 per cent achieved in 2017. That’s fine.
So, the teacher, in good faith, submits six grade 6s.
As does every teacher in the land.
A rising tide
But when the exam board aggregates those grade 6s – and the other higher grades, too – all those rounding ups and benefits of the doubt add up and up. The inevitable result is that grade inflation is blown sky high.
And even though every teacher has acted legitimately, rationally, conscientiously, the consequence across the entire community is that the "village common of the limited resource of top grades" is "over-grazed".
We won’t know the outcome until the results are announced in August, but an indication that this might happen was reported by FFT Education Datalab: its comparison against 2019 of draft grades for about 1,900 schools indicates that every GCSE grade might have been over-bid.
If this has indeed happened, and if Ofqual and the SQA maintain a policy of “no grade inflation”, there will be a significant down-grading of centre assessment grades.
A negative outcome for all
What’s the consequence of this? Well, despite the fact that the grades to be awarded are the result of a statistical algorithm, there has been widespread misinformation that “this year’s grades will be determined by teachers”. So, teachers may well be blamed.
This could lead to a discrediting of teachers’ judgement and influence at the very moment when their expertise should be most valued.
After all, there are some very important education issues on the table – the curriculum, the future of GCSE, shifting academic years, edtech, the balance between teacher assessments and exams, to name very few.
If the influence of teachers on these issues were diminished, that would indeed be a tragedy.
Dennis Sherwood has previously worked with Ofqual on a study of the underlying causes of grade inflation and has a particular interest in exams and assessment