Exams U-turn: How will they stop grade inflation now?

Will the outrage over this year's A-level results and subsequent U-turn undermine Ofqual's ability to hold grades steady, asks John Roberts

John Roberts

Has this year's exam saga undermined Ofqual's attempts to prevent grade inflation.

At the centre of the outrage over this year’s exam results – which has now resulted in an Ofqual U-turn – has been the idea that students have failed or fallen short of the grades they needed as the result of an algorithm.

But how many of those hitting out at the handling of this year’s grades realise that in many ways it has actually been business as usual?

For much of the past decade, a key part of Ofqual’s work has been to combat grade inflation through the process of "comparable outcomes".

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This means that the grade boundaries for exams are set each year in a way that allows the proportion of each grade to hold broadly steady.

This is done with the aim of ensuring fairness from one cohort to the next and credibility for the examinations themselves.

But it does mean that each and every year through its oversight of exams it ensures that a certain proportion of pupils receive Ds, Es and Us in A levels.

It is no surprise that the regulator sought to achieve this again this year. But was it a mistake?

This year, following the cancellation of A levels and GCSEs because of Covid-19, it has meant some students failing an exam they never had the chance to take.

It has been seen as simply unfair and untenable and I think both Ofqual and the Department for Education underestimated the strength of feeling it has generated.

But I have also been struck by comments from parents who have objected to the idea that grades should be determined in order to arrive at a nationally acceptable overview.

This year's situation has shone on a light on this because students haven't had the chance to perform in exams. But in fact, this process happens every year.

I suspect most parents and young people think that exam success is universally up for grabs and based solely on the quality of the work they produce rather than effectively being rationed nationally.

There is, of course, the caveat that a National Reference Test is used to try to establish whether standards in English and maths have improved in each cohort – which then feeds into the process of setting exam grades at GCSE.

But there is now a bigger question about whether the principle of holding grades steady is what the public wants or believes is fair?

After the dust has settled from this summer’s exam saga, will Ofqual be able to return to comparable outcomes as a means of stopping grades going up each year? Or will holding the grades steady be viewed – as it has this summer – as an arbitrary way of ring-fencing failure for young people?

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John Roberts

John Roberts

John Roberts is North of England reporter for Tes

Find me on Twitter @JohnGRoberts

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