A-levels and GCSEs U-turn: The end of the algorithm?

Yesterday's dramatic events may make 2020 a point of no return, year zero for England's embattled exams system, writes William Stewart

William Stewart

end of grading algorithm

Has the A-level and GCSE U-turn got rid of the grading algorithm forever?

The pandemic is having far-reaching, previously unimaginable consequences to our lives.

Temporary needs-must measures, like working-from-home, are starting to calcify into permanence, changing society forever. Is the same about to happen with our school assessment system?


Exams U-turn: Williamson fends off resignation talk 

OfqualWatchdog withdraws criteria for students to appeal using mock grades

ControversyOfqual algorithm exected to have more severe impact at GCSE


Back in March, when this year's Sats and public exams were cancelled because of coronavirus, that was what some anti-testing campaigners were predicting.

At the time, I regarded this as wishful thinking on their part. Yes, the Department for Education had had no choice but to cancel this year’s tests. But surely there was no way it would roll back on its entire philosophy towards testing and assessment forever?

In the end, I felt sure that England’s exams and testing regime would revert back to normal. Now, following yesterday‘s dramatic U-turn on A-level and GCSE grading, like others, I am not so sure.

There are two factors that make me think this could be a year zero for assessment in schools. First, now that so many parents have realised that A-level and GCSE results are in large part fixed – at macro level – by a computer algorithm, will that ever be allowed to happen again?

Second, now that so many influential voices including Conservative MPs have publicly argued for a policy that will bring about previously disreputable prospect of huge grade inflation, will the determination to combat steadily rising results ever return? 

Take next year's GCSEs and A-levels as a starting point. Imagine candidates have spent most of the next academic year back in school and exams are able to go ahead as was normal in pre-Covid times – a fairly plausible, if not certain, scenario.

Now, remember that whatever happens next year, these students will have had their education disrupted in an even more disastrous way than their counterparts who should’ve sat exams this year.

It is one thing to miss a term at the tail end of your two-year GCSE or A-level course when you would have been beginning to revise anyway. It is quite another to miss more than a term's school right in the middle of your course when crucial parts of the syllabus were supposed to be being introduced.

And that is without considering all the disruption that these students will face next term and beyond in our strange new normal, even if school openings do go as smoothly as possible.

Now, taking all those things into account, what do you imagine students', parents', and teachers' view will be when they are told that the 2021 exams will go ahead as normal and that as usual results will largely be fixed by an algorithm? 

Yes, students will have actually sat exams. But do you imagine that people will be happy for the results to go through the normal Ofqual moderation process to keep grades in line with previous years? 

In other words: would people be ok with the prospect of the class of 2021 getting significantly lower grades – 12 per cent at A level and 9 per cent at GCSE – than their 2020 counterparts when the coronavirus has hit their education much, much harder? 

I doubt it. And I think if ministers and Ofqual do attempt to keep grade inflation down through a "comparable outcomes" algorithm next year, then they may well face the same sort of outrage that forced yesterday's dramatic U-turn.

But if 2020 and 2021 are different, then why shouldn’t 2022 be as well? After all, this is supposed to be about fairness and equity. Remember that students from all these cohorts will be competing for the same jobs in the post-Covid economy. That’s why I can’t help thinking that 2020 really could be a full stop for our existing school exams system.

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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