'Ofqual can't expect us to put faith in a crystal ball'

If Ofqual doesn't disclose its model for predicting exam grades this year, it could be forced to, says Joe Tomlinson

Joe Tomlinson

GCSE and A-level results day 2020: If Ofqual doesn't disclose its model for allocating grades this year, then it could be forced to do so, says Joe Tomlinson

It is difficult not to have sympathy for anyone who has the job of implementing a fair, reliable and trustworthy system of qualification assessment at a time when carrying out exams is not practically possible.

Amid pressure to keep students moving on to the next stage of their lives, this is Ofqual’s predicament, in relation to GCSE and A-level grades this year.

Whatever system is adopted, it will inevitably require some filling in of the blanks. While this is no doubt a challenging situation, every effort ought to be made to ensure that the process is fair and transparent, and that it does not disadvantage students. 

Students, and everyone who supports their development, rely on a fair assessment system and they should not be expected to put blind faith in a secret crystal ball. Good and transparent processes can make students feel respected as individuals and lead to better overall outcomes.

GCSE and A-level results: A lack of transparency

What we do know about the process Ofqual has put in place this year is that it starts with teachers predicting what grade a student would have achieved, had they sat their exams in 2020. It then ranks each student relative to others with the same predicted grade.

Things then start to get murkier. After teachers provide grades, exam boards take this data and “standardise” the predicted grades by applying a model developed by Ofqual. If the predicted grades in a particular subject at a particular school seem overly harsh or generous, the model will adjust those grades up or down, ostensibly to ensure that “grades are fair between schools and colleges”.

How does this model work? Ofqual has confirmed that the model will draw on a range of evidence, including historical outcomes for each exam centre, the prior attainment of this year’s students and of previous cohorts in each centre, and the expected national grade distribution for each subject.

It has also confirmed that the model will consider prior attainment at a school, rather than an individual, level, so that students’ grades are not “predetermined by their prior attainment at key stage 2 or GCSE”. 

Ofqual must show its workings

Other than that, we know very little about how the model works – including, critically, how all of that information is crunched together.

This leads to legitimate concerns that the process might negatively impact on certain students, such as high achievers in historically low-performing schools or students from low-income families. 

The current problem, however, is that it is simply impossible to know whether these concerns are valid or not. As the Royal Statistical Society observed recently, without more transparency “neither the RSS, nor other external experts, can comment on their robustness”.

There is now a growing chorus of voices demanding that Ofqual shows its workings.

The courts might insist on it

The problem of public bodies not disclosing a model which is relied upon in important public decision-making is increasingly common. There can be good reasons for such reluctance, including concerns about confidentiality or abuse and circumvention.

However, the courts have shown great reluctance to permit these models to be kept hidden from view. They have said over and over again now that there is a strong legal presumption that models of this kind ought to be disclosed. The logic here is simple: people need to have basic information about how public bodies are making decisions about them so that they can understand them and, if necessary, challenge them.

The parliamentary education committee recommended last week that “Ofqual must be completely transparent about its standardisation model, and publish the model immediately to allow time for scrutiny.” 

On Monday, Ofqual wrote to the heads of centres committing to “publish the precise details of the model used on results days”. 

It is important that Ofqual fulfils this promise. If it does not, the courts might insist on it.

Joe Tomlinson is research director at the Public Law Project

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