GCSEs 2021: 10 unanswered questions about summer exams

After the announcement that teacher assessed grades will be used this summer, Tes looks at the key questions that still need answers

Grainne Hallahan

International teachers asking questions

After a lengthy consultation, teachers and students have finally been given confirmation that GCSE and A-level grades will be based on teacher assessment in 2021.

However, a lot more information is needed to inform schools’ planning ahead of the 18 June submission date for grades.

Here are some of the biggest questions we still need answers to.

1. Exactly what evidence will teachers need to provide to justify a teacher-assessed grade?

Although the Department for Education’s (DfE) rhetoric seems to place emphasis on trusting teachers, there will still be “checks” carried out by exam boards to ensure fairness.

Teachers will need to know what these checks are looking for before they can start planning the internal assessments, which will inform the grades they give.

2. What conditions will be required for internal assessments?

The announcement makes it clear that any assessments that students undertake this year will not be exams.

But will there be an expectation that internal assessments take place under certain conditions? For instance, how much preparation can a teacher give the students? And how will consistency of internal assessment conditions be maintained across schools?

3. What measures will be in place to avoid rampant grade inflation?

Last year, we saw grade inflation through the use of centre assessed grades (CAGs). This year, can we expect inflation at a similar level?

How will the exam boards ensure that inflation is kept to a minimum and the integrity of grades are maintained? 

4. Will the exemplar material used to grade students take into account the ‘generous’ grading of 2020?

In 2020, we know that grades were more generous than usual, and that grade boundaries were lowered to account for the grade inflation that occurred as a result of CAGs.

Previously, the DfE has said this generosity will be extended to 2021 grades. But how will this translate to work completed not under exam conditions? How will the exam board’s exemplars reflect the context of the assessment conditions?

And, if we’re comparing work in 2021 to student work in 2019, how does that take into account the disruption to learning cause by the coronavirus pandemic?

5. How do we address the unevenness of learning?

There have been no further details about the expert advisory group tasked with addressing the different levels of learning loss among GCSE and A-level students, which was announced in December last year. In the absence of more information about this group, is anyone continuing to look into how schools can mitigate the loss of learning for students who have been more severely impacted by the pandemic?

Currently, teachers do not have to assess students on what has not been taught. So, what will that mean for students who have only been in school for a limited amount of time or who have struggled to access home learning?

Will there be some students who have been present for such a small amount of the course that they cannot be fairly graded in line with their peers?

6. How will grading differ for SEND students who have exam dispensations?

At the moment, we are told that teachers can design their own assessments and use their judgement when grading their pupils.

But how will exam dispensations be applied to those students with special educational needs and disability who usually qualify for them? Will this be done by grade adjustment after the assessment? Or will teachers have guidance to make adjustments in their whole class assessments?

7. What should teachers do in the interim before exam boards release details?

In this period of waiting, can teachers assess and grade students, and then use those assessments to form their final grades?

Will the Easter announcement contain details that disallow certain types of assessment to be counted towards their final grade? Or will the only assessments that count be those that take place after the release of further details and which are conducted in line with whatever rules the exam boards decide?

8. What support will be given to students who opt to sit the autumn exams?

Last year, many students complained about the lack of support provided by schools to prepare for the autumn exam series. Will there be more support provided for students who wish to resit exams this autumn?

9. How will schools and colleges find the time to set, mark and moderate assessments in the summer term?

Usually, mock exams are timetabled to allow for marking and moderation to take place in school at points in the year where teachers have the capacity to complete the work. This often means the focus is taken off key stage 3 for a short period of time, or that teachers are given additional PPA time to ensure the marking can be done.

This year, exams cannot be spread out, and students in key stage 3 will likely need more need support than ever, following an extended period of home learning. So, how will schools find the time to effectively set, mark and moderate assessments in the summer term at such short notice?

10. What will count as ‘not taught’?

What has been clear so far is that what has not been taught will not be assessed. However, what counts as “not taught”?

Will work taught during lockdown have to be assessed? Or units partly taught and not completed? And will schools have to provide proof of what has and has not been taught?

11. How will appeals work?

We know that students will be able to appeal their grades and that the results day has been moved forward to allow for more time for appeals to be processed.

However, what evidence will students and teachers be allowed to submit to the exam boards to help them decide on a mark?

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Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan

Grainne Hallahan is Tes recruitment editor and senior content writer at Tes

Find me on Twitter @heymrshallahan

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