Student grades are predictably unpredictable

19th February 2016 at 00:00

According to the head of Ucas, Mary Curnock Cook, teacher grade predictions are frequently far from the reality of results day – last year, over half of all those offered places at university missed their predictions by two or more grades spread over three subjects.

It’s good that she’s highlighted the problem, because it’s the kind of issue that every honest teacher knows about, but probably wouldn’t ever want to raise because of the inevitable avalanche of approbation, denial and whataboutery that follows even the mildest of whistleblowing in education. Most teachers are pretty robust – but we can all be snowflakes at times.

This is important because every teacher I know, when confronted by the challenge of making predictions, goes through several stages of denial. On the surface, you would imagine that it’s a straightforward process: what do I think this student will achieve? It’s not an easy question, but it’s an easy premise. Until some tech elves wizard up a crystal ball app, we’re in tea-leaf territory.

You triangulate, of course. What have they been getting in standardised tests, preferably as close to exam specifications as possible in quality and timescale? What is their book work like? What is your estimation of their ability to cope with pressure? How profoundly will exam fever turbo-boost their motivation? What do you know about their circumstances that might affect their performance? Do they have exam stamina? Juggle that lot, crack open your fortune cookie, and place your bet.

Not so fast. What should be a considered professional guesstimate becomes a swamp of other considerations. You’re not being asked to speculate on whether there’s life on other planets; you’re being asked to gamble a widow’s savings on a game of craps. If your prediction is low, you narrow the choice of tertiary education that some students can access. “Please, Sir,” they say. “If you don’t predict me an A then [insert Russell Group university] won’t consider me and I’ll have to move to Borneo or something.” If you stand your ground and say “But I think you’ll get a B,” then you expose yourself to disappointment and accusations. You don’t believe in them; you don’t care.

It’s troubling. Most teachers I know have huge faith in their students. I think we’re born optimists. Maybe we have to be, to stay sane in the face of often overwhelming odds. Like The X-Files’ Agent Mulder, we want to believe. My target for all my students is an A*, and higher if I can imagine it. I know we don’t save all our patients, and some end up on the slab. Making predictions about actual expectations is a cold and awkward thing, stripped of optimism and kindness. But it’s a necessary one. I have always taken the view that you record what you think, and not what you’d like to believe, and that way you get some sleep at night and people take your word more seriously.

However, the pressure on teachers to cook up a fudge is enormous. I’ve seen teachers bullied by students, by parents, even by unrepentant line management who bullishly wonder why “your expectations are so low this year”. When teachers feel like they have a veto or a golden ticket on a student’s life chances, then there will be a tremendous pressure to bias in the student’s favour. Advantage becomes spread in a weird and disproportionate way.

Which is the best reason I know for why predicted grades should no longer form part of universities’ recruitment process. We’re there to teach, not to grease the wheels to the next stage of our students’ lives.

Tom Bennett is a secondary teacher in East London, director of the ResearchED conference and the government’s school behaviour expert @tombennett71

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