Will there be a Mexican standoff over grades in August?

What will happen when exam boards challenge a centre’s TAGs, and the centre does not give ground, asks Kevin Stannard

Kevin Stannard

GCSE and A level 2021: Will there be a Mexican standoff over teacher-assessed grades?

School leaders will be spending the next two weeks preparing to submit teacher-assessed grades for their students. 

The journey so far has taken teachers into unfamiliar waters, but the next stretch is totally uncharted. The experience of this voyage into terra incognita might well create an urge to row back to the safe harbour of old-school external assessment. That would be a great shame.

Once the grades are in, exam boards will ask schools to submit details of their decisions for selected subjects. Quite possibly, very little of this will be scrutinised, given the limited time and expertise available. 

Follow-ups will include some random sampling, but exam boards really should be looking to target egregious examples of inflated grade distributions. The obvious question is just how inflated the grades would have to be to attract attention.

GCSE and A level 2021: How inflated will the grades be? 

Schools have been asked to sense-check their submissions against grade distributions from the years when normal exams were held. The Ofqual top brass has already acknowledged that some grade inflation is inevitable (and allowable) when anonymous external exams are replaced by professional judgement – and its exercise of the benefit of the doubt on the margins. 

In a “normal” year, some candidates will underperform on the day for all sorts of reasons. This year, those candidates will understandably be awarded the higher grade.

Ofqual must be desperately hoping that, by taking 2019 as a benchmark, and adding a bit of inflation, results will end up looking not dissimilar to last year. If that’s the case, then at system level everyone will breathe a sigh of relief, because the exams won’t have been completely compromised. (This is not to suggest that everyone achieved their hoped-for grades in 2020; there were clearly casualties. But it is undeniable that across the whole cohort, more candidates got top grades last year than in previous, “normal” years.)

However, Ofqual seems to have ignored the second inflationary pressure this year: the effect of replacing a single set of terminal exams with a modular approach – comprising multiple assessment points, spread out over the course, often smaller than traditional exam papers, and afforded more preparation time. Schools were encouraged to use data points from earlier in the course, and to supplement them with assessments this term – and the clear instruction was to use the latter to fill gaps and confirm achievement levels. 

Unlike last year, teachers have been asked to record actual achievement, not potential or trajectory. The problem is that this assessment framework (a form of modularity on steroids) has created the conditions in which more students have actually shown evidence of the highest grades.

The resulting grade distributions, when compared with normal years, are likely to be out of line precisely because teachers and schools have followed the Ofqual/Joint Council for Qualificaitons instructions to the letter. 

When it comes to the crunch, we don’t know what happens when exam boards challenge a centre’s teacher-assessed grades, and the centre does not give ground. The boards don’t appear to have the power to change the grades – they’ve said that there will be no external standardisation this year – but they do have the power to withhold the award. 

This raises the possibility of a Mexican standoff in August. And what happens if a student misses a university offer because their A levels were not awarded? 

Having been handed a poisoned chalice, teachers have drunk the contents resignedly. There is no one else to whom the buck can be passed. But it has involved huge amounts of extra work and unprecedented levels of anxiety about being judge, jury and executioner all in one. 

Teachers will not want to re-enact this experience and the moral hazard that it has entailed. They will want to go back to being teachers.

This crisis has shown the public exam system to be seriously flawed – a seemingly impregnable edifice that simply collapsed at the first hint of crisis last year. It hasn’t recovered, and next year there will be a new furore around how to assess the third cohort whose education has been materially disrupted. 

The obvious response would be to clear the debris and design a more robust, fit-for-purpose and sustainable assessment structure. But, given the trauma this year, it would be perfectly understandable if teachers hanker after a return to external assessment, with grading decisions made anonymously outside the school. 

Exam boards will obviously be looking to restore their market, but they have a dog in the fight and should not be allowed to unduly influence decisions on the future of the qualifications system.

We should avoid the temptation to double down on GCSE, in particular – and we should hold out for a rethink about whether we need such exams at all at age 16

Kevin Stannard is director of innovation and learning at the Girls’ Day School Trust. He tweets @KevinStannard1

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