Run for cover – the results-day storm is coming

It takes a particularly misguided genius to make an already impossible system even more stressful. Welcome to A-level results day 2020, says David James

David James

Man in small rowing boat is battered by storm

A storm is coming – one that will consume all those involved in schools today. At the end of it, we could be left with an assessment system short on trust, deep in rancour, and long in appeals and recriminations. 

This year’s A-level and GCSE results are going to be unlike any others we have experienced before, and the signs are ominous. 

The first two major sets of grades awarded through non-examined processes have resulted in both global outrage and student protests (which, when you consider the worries that most people have right now, takes some doing). The International Baccalaureate and the Scottish Qualifications Authority delivered results that were often baffling and unfair, leaving thousands of students feeling aggrieved, with their hard work unrecognised and university places either lost or hanging in the balance. 

All this was done by algorithms applied to meet predetermined statistical outcomes. To add insult to injury, they’ve made any appeals as difficult and as unlikely to succeed as possible. Why? Well, to prove they didn’t get it wrong in the first place. 

Which comes first: students or data?

Now it has emerged that Ofqual – determined to show how amateur other competitors are when it comes to undermining the very systems it exists to protect – has decided that the “vast majority” of GCSE results, and a significant number of A-level results, have been based on statistical modelling, rather than teachers’ centre-assessed grades (CAGs). 

This will be seen by many as both an insult to the teachers who spent weeks arriving at these grades, and also as another example of how a system set up to serve students has, instead, been reduced to protecting the integrity of data sets. 

It could be argued that one set of inaccurate grades, arrived at via a flawed, cold calculation, is no better or worse than another set of inaccurate grades determined by flawed, warm human beings. Grading students will inevitably introduce biases, and so the best one can hope for is an equal (and non-discriminatory) distribution of grades year after year. 

There is another view that holds that any assessment should be reflective of a student’s ability, marked against pre-specified qualities, without reference to others in that cohort. Yup, it’s the old norm-referenced assessment versus criterion-referenced assessment dichotomy that has been debated by edugeeks for longer than most would admit to. 

A messy assessment mash-up

The CAG and rankings processes, hastily dumped on teachers soon after schools closed down in March, attempted to bring these conflicting approaches together.

It was never going to be easy, but teachers did their best to shape something fair out of a messy assessment mash-up. They revisited old essays, reread termly reports, shared mark books, and pored over various specifications. And then, slowly, painfully, they ranked each student.

Now, because of a slavish addiction to data, as well as the perceived need to meet the demands of the next key stage, this fundamentally human process has been dragged across an indifferent computer screen and dumped in the 'Trash' icon. You can already hear the sound of trust between schools and Ofqual, government and awarding bodies being shredded. It will take an age to paste it back together again. 

At the centre of all this are our young people: when the storm comes, it will be they who will be seeing their futures rewritten before their eyes. When assessment is fundamentally compromised, when a system is perceived to have become distanced from those it seeks to serve, then distrust quickly eats into what provides it with its reason for existence. 

Making an impossibly stressful situation worse

Abstract standardisation models quickly become real in the classroom: lessons lose momentum, marking is blunted, teachers cease to believe in their own ability to help students achieve the grades they deserve, and students begin to question why they have to work so hard. 

Examinations, imperfect though they are, shift responsibility to succeed from the school to the student. And it is they who, usually, are in charge of their fates, with all the attendant issues this inevitably brings with it. 

Now, we are faced with a set of results that have no obvious authors, with nobody willing to accept responsibility for them, coupled with an appeals process that is even more difficult than it was before.   

In the five months that have passed between the closure of schools and the publication of A-level and GCSE results, it takes a particular form of misguided genius – wedded more to internal processes and adherence to statistical consistency than fairness and integrity – to make an already impossibly stressful situation worse than it was at the start. 

But here we are. Waiting for the rain to come. Let us hope that there is still enough trust, support and energy left in our schools – and with our teachers – to see us through this coming storm.

David James is deputy head (academic) at a leading UK independent school. He tweets as @drdavidajames

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