It's exam-only assessment that has led us to this mess

If A levels and GCSEs had included an element of coursework or teacher assessment, we would have been in a very different position come results day 2020, says John Dunford

John Dunford

Tangled knot, with hands pulling at it

August used to be a month without much news. So the days leading up to A-level and GCSE results, and the day itself, meant that the pressure was on for education journalists to deliver a story about exams. The more sensational of these often made the front pages of the national dailies.

In August 2020, there is no shortage of national and international news, as coronavirus continues its deadly and disruptive march across countries. Exam-related issues have had to compete for space with life-and-death stories from around the world.

The uniqueness of the 2020 results season has, however, produced its crop of stories. Most of these focus on students whose centre-assessed grades (CAGs) will be adjusted, fuelled by the news that around a quarter of initially awarded grades in Scotland were lower than the teachers’ estimate (although the Scottish government has since announced that these results will be withdrawn).

Taking a calm look at the situation in England, some important factors should not be overlooked by those reportedly unhappy with the system.

An entirely new system

The need for a wholly different system of awarding grades in 2020 occurred at very short notice, when schools were closed in March to all except the most vulnerable children and those of key workers, and examinations were cancelled.

An entirely new system had to be developed quickly – the only alternative was postponing grading until exams could be safely sat by everyone. This would have caused chaos for the students themselves, their schools and colleges, as well as the higher-education sector.

The system was devised by Ofqual, in consultation with the sector, and was broadly welcomed at the time: it was “the best available option under the difficult circumstances’, as the Association of School and College Leaders described it.

If there has been an error or schools believe that the moderation process has produced an unreliable result, they can appeal. If there is unhappiness with awarded grades, students can take an examination in the autumn – an extra hurdle and far from ideal, but a useful safety net. 

Exam results have to be fair – and to be seen to be fair – not only to the individual students who have taken the exams this year, but also between all students taking the same exam, between different schools and colleges, and between students taking the same subjects in different years. Grade B should mean the same in 2020 as it did in 2019 and will do in 2021.

Entirely reliant on external examinations

In recent years, the education system in England has become almost entirely reliant on external examinations, with the result that centre-marked assessment plays virtually no part in the final grading process at A level or GCSE. 

If England had a grade-awarding system at GCSE and A level that contained elements of both external examinations and teacher assessment, we would have been in a much better position to award accurate grades in the exceptional circumstances of 2020.

School and college staff have put in a huge amount of work to come up with CAGs and with a rank order in each subject. This was no easy task, for teachers who were preparing students for an entirely different form of assessment. A range of evidence will have been used to establish CAGs, including mock-exam results, but these are often very different from a student’s final grade.

With the previous exam performance of schools being taken into account in deriving this year’s results, there is particular concern for students in schools that are on a rapid improvement journey. If a school has never had an A grade in mathematics, then an A* student’s excellent work may not be recognised in the grade awarded this year. To be fair to these students, schools and colleges should not hesitate to use the appeal mechanism for this, and similar, situations.

Not an exact science

The pattern of results in Scotland gave cause for concern about the results of disadvantaged students being downgraded more than the grades of their more fortunate peers.

If this happens in England, the appeal process is there to be used. Coronavirus has already done too much damage to the education of disadvantaged learners and the hard work done in recent years to close the gap.

According to data emerging so far, A-level CAGs are 12 percentage points higher than 2019 results, and GCSE CAGs are 9 percentage points better. Some moderation is therefore inevitable if there is to be fairness between grades in different years.

Much of the explanation for the higher CAGs is almost certainly down to teachers giving borderline students the benefit of the doubt – understandable in each individual case, but not sustainable across the system as a whole. 

In discussing the 2020 grades, it needs to be understood that the chosen system has limitations. Nobody is claiming it is an exact science. All grade-awarding systems should be valid and reliable, and the 2020 system is not as reliable as the normal examination system. 

Coronavirus is likely to be with us for some time. This may not be the last year when emergency measures have to be taken to produce consistent grades for A level and GCSE.

So, for 2021 and beyond, the lessons from 2020 must be learned, and expertise in giving centre-assessed grades must be built, so that they become a valuable and reliable part of the national awarding system. 

If the 2020 awarding system is properly understood and reported in the media in an unsensational way, students will be able to celebrate their achievements and move on to the next phase in their lives. That should be the main focus of the results this week and next.

John Dunford is a former headteacher and general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. He is a former chair of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors and, in 2018-19, he chaired the independent commission on examination malpractice

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