GCSEs and A levels results days 2021: What are TAGs?

With results days just around the corner, here's everything you need to know about how grades are being calculated this year

Kate Parker

Results day 2021, GCSE, A-Level

This summer, students will be awarded teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) for their GCSEs and A levels. 

It’s the second year that exams have been cancelled owing to Covid, and after the backlash around the centre-assessed grades awarded last year, education secretary Gavin Williamson promised to trust teachers to award grades, instead of using an algorithm.

So, how has the awarding process worked? What evidence have teachers used and how are they moderated?

TAGs: How were grades decided?

Teachers have had to generate one grade per student per subject based on the content taught. And while the government has allowed centres to determine their own awarding process, grades have to be based on a range of evidence, which could be a combination of:

  • Student work produced in response to assessment materials provided by the awarding organisation, including groups of questions, past papers or similar materials such as practice or sample papers. 
  • Non-exam assessment (NEA) work (coursework), even if this has not been fully completed. 
  • Student work produced in centre-devised tasks that reflect the specification, which follow the same format as awarding organisation materials and have been marked in a way that reflects awarding organisation mark schemes, including substantial classwork or homework (including work that took place during remote learning), internal tests taken by students and/or mock exams taken over the course of study.
  • Records of a student’s capability and performance over the course of study in performance-based subjects such as music, drama and PE. 
  • Records of each student’s standard of work over the course of study, such as coursework already completed, internal tests or mock exams. 

Guidance from the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) states: “Heads of centre should ensure that students have the opportunity to show the full breadth of their knowledge and understanding in each subject based on what they have been taught. It is important that grades represent a holistic, objective judgement based on evidence of each student’s performance in each subject. 

“Evidence should be used consistently across the class or cohort wherever possible. The evidence can be of different types and can come from across the course of study. This guidance should support the consideration of the different factors that need to be accounted for when making a judgement about the grade.”

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How did schools prepare for TAGs?

Each centre (schools or colleges) had to submit its "centre policy" by 30 April. This policy outlined their process for awarding the grades, including the roles and responsibilities of individual teachers, details around the training and support provided to newly qualified teachers, as well as what evidence would be used to determine grades, and what would happen if a potential conflict of interest was identified – for example, if a student is related to a teacher.

The policy also had to set out the internal quality assurance processes that the centre was putting in place. This included: arrangements to standardise judgements and consider teacher-assessed grades against results from previous years when exams have taken place; and details of provision for private candidates.

How was the evidence for TAGs weighted? 

The approach from centre to centre has varied around weighted assessments; some centres gave more weight to assessments conducted in exam conditions in comparison with coursework, for example.

Ofqual’s guidance document told centres to consider:

  • Coverage of assessment objectives.
  • Coverage of content.
  • Authenticity – is the evidence the student’s own work? 
  • Level of control – was it taken in timed conditions? Was there an opportunity for redrafting? Was it supervised? 
  • Marking – how much support was available when applying the mark scheme? What internal standardisation processes have been applied? 

JCQ said no one type of evidence took precedence, but that “evidence gathered in conditions that enable confidence about the authenticity of the students’ work will give more confidence in the overall holistic judgement. More recent evidence is likely to be more representative of student performance, although there may be exceptions”.

Each awarding organisation also provided additional assessment materials for teachers to use this summer. The materials were not exams, but they could be used to generate the evidence needed to help to determine a grade. Centres were under no obligation to use the materials, however, and, where appropriate assessment evidence was already available, there was no need to replace it with new evidence. 

Some schools held “assessment weeks” with a centralised assessment timetable under secure conditions to make things as fair as possible, but the decision about whether to do this was left up to individual centres.

Throughout May and June, some centres had virtual visits from exam boards where the policy submission suggested they needed extra support and guidance. 

All grades had to be submitted to awarding organisations between 26 May and 18 June. 

How were GCSE and A-level grades moderated?

Once the grading decisions were made, centres then had to review the aggregate cumulative grade distribution for each subject and qualification type (ie, GCSE/A level). 

If the grades were much higher or lower than in previous years, reasons had to be considered, and evidence of recurring trends in the profile of performance – ie, strong results for specific subjects or student groups – reviewed. The centres were advised to make a record of the comparison and rationale for any variations so awarding organisations could discuss any external quality assurance checks. 

Each grade had to be signed off by at least two teachers in the subject: one of whom had to be either the head of department or subject lead.

The head of centre also had to confirm that the grades were a “true representation of student performance”, and had to submit a declaration when the data was submitted saying: 

“I confirm that:

  • these grades have been checked for accuracy, reviewed by a second member of staff and are accurate and represent the professional judgements made by my staff
  • entries were appropriate for each candidate in that students entered were those already studying the course, and each candidate has no more than one entry per subject
  • my centre has met the requirements set out by exam boards/JCQ for internal quality assurance
  • I am satisfied that each student’s grade is based on an appropriately broad range of evidence, including evidence from other centres, providers or specialist teachers if relevant, and is their own work
  • each student has been taught (or, in the case of private candidates, has studied) an appropriate amount of content to provide the basis for a grade
  • exam board requirements have been met for any private candidates
  • access arrangements and reasonable adjustments were provided with appropriate input from the Sendco and other specialists (and where they were not, that has been taken into account)
  • I and my staff have taken note of the Ofqual guidance on making objective judgements, judgements have not been influenced by pressure from students, parents or carers, and I am confident that the judgements are fair.” 

Once the grades were submitted, every centre had to provide samples of student work to exam boards, with evidence requested for at least one A-level subject, and two GCSE subjects, one of which was likely to be either English language or maths. In each subject, centres were asked for the evidence used to determine the grades for at least five students, and were given 48 hours to submit the evidence. 

Exam boards also compared a centre’s grade submission with their results in previous years where exams did take place – in 2017, 2018 and 2019 – and prioritised quality assurance checks for those centres whose results are more out of line with their historical results than other centres nationally, including where grades are lower.

TAGs: how fair are they?

At first, giving teachers more control over final grades was welcomed after the chaos of centre-assessed grades and the controversy of the algorithm in 2020. But concerns still remain over the fairness of the process.

An exclusive Tes survey found that nearly seven in 10 teachers believe that this year's grading process for GCSEs and A levels will not give all students the grades they deserve. Some commented on the inconsistency of approaches taken by different schools in arriving at grades nationally, which they felt made grades this year incomparable, while others said that the guidelines issued by the JCQ were too vague.

And parents have their concerns too: a Mumsnet survey published this month found that more than half of parents believe that teacher-assessed grades for this year's GCSEs and A levels are going to be unfair. 

When are GCSE and A-level results days 2021?

This year, both GCSE and A-level results days will take place in the week beginning 9 August. The grades for A levels and other level 3 qualifications will be given to students on Tuesday 10 August; grades for GCSEs and other level 2 qualifications will be given on Thursday 12 August.

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a schools and colleges content producer.

Find me on Twitter @KateParkerTes

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