Which A* unfairness is least unfair?

20th August 2010 at 01:00
Let us hope no A-level students getting results yesterday were affected by the new grade's potential irregularities

As all footballers know, there are myriad ways of scoring a goal. Sometimes it is better to abandon the technical rule book. It is, after all, the outcome that matters, not how it is achieved. Or is it? In the complex, highly technical world of examining and awarding, the same arguments could be brought to bear.

This year's A-level awards provide a salutary case study of the confusion and anxieties that result when Ofqual and the awarding bodies "bend it like Beckham" but omit to tell schools and others in advance. Confused? Not as confused as some candidates and their teachers might have been on results day yesterday.

At the centre of this particular case study lies a tension between consistency and fairness. The glittering prize: the new A* grade. The challenge for Ofqual: to meet its statutory remit of achieving consistency of standards between awarding bodies in the same subject and over time.

As the A* is new at A-level, Ofqual modelled 2009's "old style" A-levels (six units in most subjects, without stretch and challenge explicitly built into the A2) and generated an official table of "expected A* outcomes" for each. For classical Greek, the figure was 15 per cent; for media studies, it was 2 per cent.

Differences between subjects may be surprising, but they are not new. They largely reflect differences at grade A; most can be explained by differences in the ability and prior attainment of the candidates taking the exam.

In addition to these anticipated A* subject outcomes, Ofqual also required awarding bodies to report any cases where the percentage of A*s was 2 per cent higher or lower than their modelling anticipated.

So far, so good, although in an exchange of correspondence with Ofqual at the end of July (since posted on the regulator's website), The Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference questioned whether the 2 per cent "tolerances" were too stringent, given Ofqual's admission that no account had been taken of the likely motivational effect of the existence of the A* in Ofqual's modelling.

The more important issue, however, is what the awarding bodies and Ofqual will do if the percentage of A* grades likely to be awarded is greater (or lower) than expected.

On August 4, Ofqual (some time after all awarding meetings had finished) posted the following statement on its website: "If the percentage gaining A* at qualification level is more than the agreed 'tolerance' of 2 per cent in either direction from the statistical indicator value for that specification, one or more unit level A* conversion points - the point at which the raw mark on a unit is converted to 90 per cent of the uniform marks - should be adjusted to bring the percentage within tolerance. Changes should only be made if the grade A qualification standard can be maintained in the process."

Translated into lay terms, this effectively means that awarding bodies may, in exceptional circumstances, alter the number of raw marks needed to achieve an A*. If this happens, candidates who would, without such an intervention, have been awarded an A*, would end up with an A. This could be extremely high stakes for the individual affected.

The problem for Ofqual and awarding bodies is that there is nothing in the code of practice that says this can happen (unlike at GCSE, where bodies have the freedom to adjust the marks needed for an A* if technical and statistical evidence support it).

Nor does all of the awarding bodies' own public documentation refer to such procedures. Potentially, therefore, there would be good grounds for an appeal by individual candidates who found themselves adversely affected by the application of procedures that are not set out in official documentation.

At the time of writing we did not know how many students might be affected. In a press release following last Friday's TES lead story ("Exam boards massage A* A-level marks, Ofqual admits"), the regulator acted quickly to try to reassure students and teachers. They also made public the fact that in 21 out of a total of 214 A2 specifications (some 10 per cent), the proportion awarded an A* was outside the 2 per cent tolerance range. They did not, however, give a breakdown by subject or awarding body, information which will, presumably, now be available.

In fairness to Ofqual and the awarding bodies, both are trying to do a decent, professional job in difficult circumstances. Moreover, the awarding process in a largely modular examinations system is now so complex that one has some sympathy with calls for the reintroduction of linear exams and even a return to some form of norm-referencing, with single awarding bodies responsible for different subjects.

I have argued previously that aspects of Ofqual's statutory remit look like "mission impossible" ("Fledgling exams watchdog disappoints already", The TES, January 29, 2010). In trying to balance consistency (at whole cohort, system level) and fairness (at candidate level), it is wedged between a statistical rock and a judgmental hard place.

The system's critics rightly argue that for Awarding Body A to award far more A*s in the same subject than Awarding Body B or C, would be unfair to candidates who happened not to have sat the exam of the "generous" body. Which sort of unfairness is least unfair?

However, one of the lessons of the 2002 A-level grading fiasco was the need to manage public and professional expectations well in advance of results day. While it is important to keep what happened this year in perspective - it is certainly not in the same league as 2002's interventions and may, in the end, affect only a handful of candidates - it illustrates that Ofqual is still in its infancy. Its track record for openness and transparency to date has been good.

It is surprising, therefore, that it has left it so late to communicate what could be so contentious. To return to (and mix) the football metaphor with which this article began: to move the goalposts for a good reason is (just about) acceptable. Not to communicate it early and clearly is an avoidable own goal. Let's hope no individual has lost a university place this year because of it.


Geoff Lucas, Secretary, The Headmasters' and Headmistresses'Conference.

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