GCSEs 2022: which is the fairest grading option?

A decision about how exam grading will be ‘pegged’ is yet to be made. Geoff Barton looks at the options

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton has said ASCL is concerned that lessons have not been learned from this summer's exam grade controversy.

We all know that in teaching, young people can ask us difficult questions.

But this year, if you are teaching an examination group in England – whether at GCSE, A level or a vocational/technical qualification – there are some fairly basic questions your class could ask, to which you really shouldn’t have to say “I don’t know”.

For example, a student might ask: “What will my GCSE history exam look like next year?” Or “Has the government got a plan B if all exams can’t actually run?” Or “Will standards in 2022 be the same or higher or lower than they were this year?”

In normal times, you’d be able to respond with ease. But these aren’t normal times. 

GCSEs 2022

Yet they are questions which, by now – weeks into the start of term for many schools and colleges – we should be able to provide answers for our students.

After all, these aren’t arcane, intellectual concepts. That question about exam standards in 2022 matters because many young people are starting to apply for higher education courses. They need to know the grades they’ll require, or whether higher education institutions will shift their entry requirements up or down.

Universities, in turn, need to know the likely proportion of different grades and have confidence in how they’ll be regulated in order to plan course numbers.

GCSE grading options

A few weeks ago in this column – and with characteristic understatement – I dismissed the idea of returning next summer to the grade distribution of the 2019 exam series as “savagely harsh”.

Confession time: since then, I’ve changed my mind, and so have many of my colleagues. Indeed, at a special meeting this week of the Association of School and College Leaders’ Council – our decision making body – we recommended a return to the grading of 2019.

That decision will, to many people, seem counterintuitive and unfair to students. After all, the cohort taking their exams next year will have suffered 18 months of educational disruption and therefore arguably deserve more generosity.

In truth, there’s no perfect solution to this particular dilemma, no easy answer. That’s why we think the government owes it to students and their teachers to get on and make the decision, so that everyone knows where they stand.

And, of course, there’s a much bigger, longer-term debate to be had about our national obsession with exams, the sheer quantity of them, and the way outcomes are used to measure students, teachers, leaders and to justify league tables of institutions. We’ll need to rethink aspects of that.

But standards in 2022 is the immediate issue.

Fair or not?

How can we achieve maximum fairness for next year’s cohort – and for those of past and future years – after two years of grading turbulence? Do we return to the grading pattern of 2019 when public exams last took place, or base distribution on 2020 or 2021, or do we “glide” back over a course of years to 2019?

There are two aspects to the question of fairness – how students are assessed next year following the pandemic and the issue of cohorts of different years, with different grading distribution, potentially competing for jobs and university places

In terms of the first question, we believe that fairness does not lie in awarding higher grades than in 2019 but in the construction of the exams themselves. In other words, the solution lies in the adaptations that are made to mitigate the disruption caused by the pandemic.

As readers will know, the government is consulting on a mitigation plan, which includes giving advance notice of exam topics and allowing some limited use of pre-release materials, such as data sheets, in maths.

That principle of adapting exams is important because it will allow students and their teachers to know where to focus their energies on closing learning gaps rather than trying to superficially cover the full course content. It should hopefully mean that these young people are able to sit their exams with a reasonable degree of confidence that they will be assessed on what they know rather than being caught out on what they don’t.

Standards over time

But then we get to the thornier issue of comparing the results of one year group with another. For example, there is the potential unfairness for a 2022 cohort with grades based on 2019 distribution competing for jobs and university places against the cohorts of 2021 and 2020, when grades were generally higher.

But is this genuinely a problem? Employers and universities are well aware of the circumstances of the pandemic and how this has affected grading, and universities are well-versed in comparing grading systems from across the world. It should therefore be possible to treat applicants fairly and to look at their applications in a humane and rounded manner.

Basing next year’s grading distribution on 2020 or 2021 would embed into the grading system a higher proportion of top grades, which may devalue other grades and cause difficulties in differentiating at the top end.

Difficulty at the top

Would grades be based on the 2020 distribution, which happened by accident after the “mutant algorithm” fiasco? Or on 2021, when a different system of teacher assessment was used and grades were generally higher than in 2019 and 2020? Would it then be necessary to introduce additional grades at the top end – an A** at A-level and a grade 10 at GCSE – with the resulting confusion this would cause?

Employers, universities and the wider public appear to understand and accept that 2020 and 2021 were exceptional years, when circumstances meant the system of assessment – and therefore the grading profile – were different than in normal years. But they may be less able to understand and accept why what was exceptional should then become the new norm forever afterwards, and the danger is that this would undermine public confidence.

The problem with ‘gliding’

The solution that is often suggested to this issue is the notion of a “glide” back to 2019 distribution over a period of years. However, the problem here is that the grading pattern in each of the “glide” back years would need to be set at arbitrary points. We would then have different grading profiles for the pre-Covid period, the years 2020 and 2021, and three or four successive years afterwards before a stable pattern was achieved. It would be very confusing for everybody concerned and increase the potential for unfairness between cohorts over something like seven years.

On balance, then, the view we have come to – after much thought and discussion – is that a direct return to 2019 grading distribution is the best way forward. It’s the most generous to young people who will have the chance to get the same proportion of top grades that they would in 2019, even though they’ve had less teaching time and exam practice.

And it resets our exam system rather than prolonging some annual ritual of statistical intervention.

Clarity needed now

So, when it comes to what to do with standards in 2022, you may agree or disagree with all of that.

But what is vital is that this debate is aired now, and that the government and Ofqual act decisively and quickly, so that students, parents, schools and colleges have the certainty they need.

This, in turn, will allow us to look at the longer-term changes to our examination-choked system and create more proportionate use of exams, more proportionate accountability, more use, perhaps, of technology.

No decision is going to please everyone, of course. But we really do need a decision – if only to give you an answer to those students’ difficult but utterly reasonable questions.

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Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

Find me on Twitter @RealGeoffBarton

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