The generosity of 2020 grading for GCSEs and A levels – when teacher-assessed grades were awarded – was “logical, rational and justifiable”, according to a new exam board report.
The paper by Tom Benton, principal research officer at Cambridge Assessment, argues that when an exam series is less reliable than usual, a “natural human inclination” to “ensure students do not lose out” may increase the chances of students ending with a better grade than they might have achieved with a more reliable assessment.
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"Usually, the greater concern is that [less reliability] increases the chances of students being awarded a worse grade than would otherwise have been the case,” it says.
“Since the reduced level of reliability is due to circumstances that are beyond students’ control, it seems unfair that some of them may end up with lower grades than they would have achieved under ordinary circumstances,” the paper adds, arguing that this means “leniency” should be applied to the grades.
It says that in 2020, schools and colleges recognised that their ability to determine students’ grades was less reliable than if exams had gone ahead.
“Once we know that the reliability of an assessment is lower than normal, the natural human inclination is to try to ensure that students do not lose out.
“Reduced reliability will increase the chances of a student ending up with a better grade than they would have achieved with a more reliable assessment,” the paper says.
The paper analyses the extent to which grade boundaries might have had to change in 2019 to deliver different choices about standards, as well as the difference between forecast A-level grades submitted to exam board OCR by teachers in 2014 and actual exam grades that year.
In one set of circumstances, based on these previous estimates of reliability for teacher-assessed grades, the proportion of students awarded A and above at A level could have been expected to increase in 2020 from 25.5 per cent to 36.2 per cent.
Schools and colleges submitted grades to exam boards that increased the proportion awarded A and above from 25.5 per cent overall in 2019 to 37.6 per cent in 2020.
Benton adds: “The ﬁnal distribution of grades in summer 2020 was similar to what might be expected from a logical application of giving students the beneﬁt of the doubt from a position of uncertainty about how they would have performed in real exams.
“This may indicate that many teachers had a natural intuition for how conﬁdent they could be in their own estimates and applied a logical level of beneﬁt of the doubt to help ensure that students were not disadvantaged relative to a normal year.
“Of course, the similarity in results may be purely coincidental. However, it does illustrate how major changes in grade distributions between years need not necessarily, in themselves, indicate inappropriate decisions.
“If our aim is to protect students from any adverse effects of added unreliability, a change in grade distributions is a logically justiﬁable result.”
The paper also argues that the generosity of 2020 should not be carried forward when normal exams resume.
“By using data from forecast grades in the past, and by noting that CAGs were a form of forecast, we generated a data-driven estimate of the likely reliability of CAGs,” it says.
“Based on this, we found that, in part, the grade distribution in summer 2020 represented a perfectly reasonable application of benefit of the doubt by teachers to ensure that students were not negatively affected by the circumstances they found themselves in,” although it notes that disproportionate generosity was seen in teacher-assessed grades for the lowest A-level grade.
“Some would argue that the generous distribution of grades from 2020 should be carried forward into the future, as not doing this is unfair to subsequent cohorts of students.
“However, this fails to recognise the possible role of benefit of the doubt in teachers assigning grades in 2020,” it says.
Jill Duffy, chief executive of the OCR board, said: “The means of determining grades in 2021 is different from normal and from 2020, so the overall grade distribution in 2021 is likely to look different from 2020 and previous years.
“Teachers should ensure that they take an evidence-based approach to determining grades this summer, in line with the detailed guidance and training provided by exam boards, and try to be as accurate as possible.
“Decisions about potential must not factor into students’ grades; if a student is currently performing consistently at a grade B standard, they should be awarded a grade B.
“This evidence-based approach, together with both the internal quality assurance schools and colleges will undertake and the external quality assurance that exam boards working together will conduct, will provide confidence in the grades awarded this summer.”