Exam board unease at grade changes revealed

14th December 2012 at 00:00
Staff described them as an extra `hurdle' and said the system `sucks'

Serious misgivings from exam boards about their summer GCSE English grading decisions were revealed this week, as a legal challenge to the controversial results came to court.

Lawyers for an alliance of pupils, schools, teaching unions and local authorities argued that the dramatic increase in grade boundaries between January and June was a "statistical fix". They told the High Court that it was "unfair" and amounted to an "abuse of power" by exams regulator Ofqual and the Edexcel and AQA exam boards.

The hearing follows months of wrangling after the release of unexpectedly low GCSE English grades in August. The alliance is dissatisfied with Ofqual's two reports on the scandal and has turned to the law to try and get the exams regraded.

Edexcel described the shift in boundaries as doing "horrible things to individual units", according to records of a teleconference between exam boards and Ofqual presented to the court by the alliance. Exam board staff also questioned the justice of the grade boundary changes and said that the system "sucks".

The claimants' evidence included a transcript of an Edexcel awarding meeting in which chair of examiners Tony Farrell suggested that a controlled assessment unit was "going to be our means of manipulating the stats every time". Because it was a speaking and listening unit there was no written work for anyone to refer back to, Mr Farrell explained. "Nobody can gainsay and come back and say `No, you're wrong,'" he said.

Documents also revealed that AQA overruled the original judgement of its principal examiner, Helen Backhouse, who said the C grade for its written English paper should be set at between 44 and 48 marks in June. The grade boundary was instead set at 53 marks, 10 marks higher than the January boundary of 43.

Clive Sheldon QC, representing the alliance, told the court that 32,097 pupils with marks between 44 and 48 were "clobbered" with grade Ds to meet Ofqual's insistence that there should be no apparent grade inflation. "Ofqual closed its eyes to manipulation because it had instructed exam boards to meet certain predictions," Mr Sheldon said.

But Clive Lewis QC, representing AQA, said grading judgements were based on the quality of work. Statistical information was used but did not determine outcomes and the board had not been acting on instruction or because "some sort of quota was being applied", he said. It had acted properly and there had been no abuse of power.

The alliance's evidence included minutes from an Edexcel meeting about the grading changes in July, showing that the board's head of standards, Pauline Law, said: "A hurdle is being imposed on candidates at the end of their GCSE that was not there earlier in the course." Ms Law was also reported as describing the situation in an email as a "crisis", warning it had the potential to bring the entire exam system into "serious disrepute".

The alliance's evidence said the statistical prediction model eventually used to determine grades was described by Ofqual's then acting director of standards, Cath Jadhav, as a "leap of faith" and by Derek Richardson, Edexcel's head of general qualifications assessment, as being based on a "massive assumption". AQA noted it would require "some uncomfortable adjustments".

Edexcel had not begun its defence when TES went to press. Ofqual's lawyers were expected to argue that the watchdog had acted "entirely properly" and "fairly" and that there was no major difference in the way grade boundaries were set in June. The watchdog's evidence says that regrading the June results according to January's boundaries, as the alliance wants, would result in a "very real unfairness" to candidates with results from 2011 or 2013.

A judgement is expected next week.

`Their die is cast'

Emma Whale, head of English publishing for Edexcel's parent company Pearson, said she was "really worried" that the 34.7 per cent of candidates achieving a C in the board's qualification was "so low", according to evidence from the alliance.

"Their die is cast before they even sit the exam," she said in an email commenting on the grading link to the results of national tests that candidates took aged 11. "There is no potential for mobility.Man, the system really sucks."

Evidence also revealed that Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, told a colleague that exam boards had been asked to "reduce grades. in large part due to (in hindsight) Ofqual designing grade inflation into the structure of the qualifications".

"OCR and AQA seem to have agreed to reduce grades to meet predictions," he continued. "It's hard to know how just their reductions are, but we suspect not very, since the prediction matrices are not very reliable."

Photo: General secretary of the NUT Christine Blower, centre, and colleagues gather outside the High Court. Photo credit: Getty

Original headline: Exam board unease at grade changes revealed in court

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