Why GCSEs 2021 might actually be good for teachers

Teachers are being given extraordinary power over this year's grades – could this set a precedent, asks Dennis Sherwood

Dennis Sherwood

GCSEs and A levels 2021: Why teacher assessment this year, after the cancellation of exams, could set a precedent for the future

Many articles on this year’s process for awarding exam-free grades have portrayed teachers as victims, forced to stand in the firing line, taking the flak from “sharp-elbowed parents”. 

Yes, this year, teachers will be playing a very different role – but a role that potentially offers an important opportunity: an opportunity to exercise significant power wisely, for, as Geoff Barton pointed out at the recent ASCL conference, teachers have more power than they realise.

That power results from a single, innocuous, word: “reasonable” – surely one of Ofqual’s favourite words since the 2016 change in the rules to make it harder to appeal. Until then, a re-mark was available on request; afterwards, a re-mark could happen only if it could be demonstrated that there was a “marking error” or that the original mark was not “reasonable”. 

Explicitly, this excluded what Ofqual referred to as having “a second bite of the cherry”, where a second mark, equally as valid as the original, might result in a higher grade. 

GCSEs 2021: No second-guessing teachers' judgements

The rule change had its intended effect: since 2016, the number of challenges and grade changes has stabilised

“Reasonableness” is deeply ingrained in Ofqual’s thinking, so it is no surprise that it features strongly in the decisions resulting from the recent consultation on this summer’s process. This concept appears in two very different contexts, and I wonder if it might be a major driver of what we see happening this summer.

The first context concerns how exam boards will exercise external quality assurance over teacher assessments: “The external quality assurance arrangements will be focused on making sure that the process and evidence used by centres to determine a grade is reasonable; it will not involve second-guessing teachers’ judgements.”

This puts the burden of proof of “unreasonableness” on the exam board, which I think an exam board will find very difficult for individual cases. 

That gives power to teachers. How, for example, can a board challenge an A-level assessment that is the same as a Ucas prediction – especially when Ucas guidance states that “predicted grades … should be aspirational but achievable”? 

Likewise, how can a board argue that a GCSE assessment of grade 7 should be reduced to grade 6 when Ofqual itself acknowledges that exam grades are “reliable to one grade either way”? 

The second context concerns appeals: “…an exam board will only revise a student’s grade at appeal where the board finds the evidence on which the grade was determined cannot reasonably support that grade, rather than as a result of marginal differences of opinion.”

Judging that “the evidence…cannot reasonably support that grade” is also hard, once again putting power in the hands of teachers – but this power is against an appeal, for the likelihood is that the board will support the teacher’s assessment rather than overrule it.

Exams: Teachers have the power

Teachers, therefore, have power, both ways: power to bid up, “giving the benefit of the doubt” to their students in the original assessment, and power to hold the line against appeals relating to an assessment that the student, parent or carer might consider too low.

How will teachers exercise the quite extraordinary power that has been bestowed upon them?

Those who, perhaps understandably, wish to avoid confrontation might seek to minimise the likelihood of appeals by submitting assessments as high as they think “reasonableness” permits. This exploits the quality-assurance context, with a consequential impact on university and sixth-form admissions, and also on grade inflation – but none of those are an individual teacher’s problem.

The appeals context can also be exploited, for the likelihood that an exam board will confirm a teacher’s assessment gives an opportunity for what I truly hope is a very small minority of teachers to bias their submissions to the lowest “reasonable” level, too.

Personally, I won’t lose much sleep about grade optimism, but I find the possibility of undiscoverable bias deeply disturbing. That puts the spotlight on teachers to self-regulate and to act with integrity, ensuring that all students are awarded the grades they truly merit. 

And if teachers can do that, and be trusted to have done it, does that set a precedent for the future of assessment? That, to me, would be a very good outcome of the wise exercise of teacher power.

Dennis Sherwood has worked with Ofqual on a study of the underlying causes of grade inflation, and has a particular interest in exams and assessment

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