Short thoughts: teacher assessed UK exam grades

Article 22 March 2021 Experience

Following the Government’s announcement that formal exams including GCSEs and A-Levels have been cancelled for 2021, schools have been grappling with how best to support their learners and ensure that their grades are reasonable and fair.

At face value, there appears to be similarities with what occurred in 2020 with Centre Assessed Grades, but in practice, schools now face a different kind of challenge. In 2020, there was limited information to rely upon and new evidence could not be created for the purposes of grading. In 2021, schools will be gathering their data in the full view of expectant parents and pupils.

In order to ensure that they have evidence upon which to grade their learners, many schools are choosing to proceed with ‘mini’ examinations internally.

We anticipate that the greatest concern our school clients will have at present is ensuring that the process they use to assess grades is considered to be fair by their parents and learners, as well as externally, so that they do not open themselves up to criticism and disputes.

This Short Thought looks at some questions schools may be asking at this stage, and how they can be answered.

Is it ok that our pupils will see their exam questions in advance and how can we fairly support them with their revision?

Schools will currently be absorbing the news announced on Wednesday by the Department for Education that all new materials produced by exam boards will be publically released after Easter, around one to three teaching weeks before exams would most likely be taken.

Many schools would have been relying on that new material for their exams and will want the security of using questions that already have a board-approved mark scheme.

The public release of all new materials immediately raises questions about fairness and grade inflation, as students will have around three weeks to read the new materials, knowing that in all likelihood, they will have seen the questions that will form part of their examination.

It is reasonable to assume that students who are well supported and industrious will take advantage of the situation to finesse their answers in advance. And of course your school will want to ensure, notwithstanding the practices of other schools in your sector, that your pupils are preparing as well as possible.

You may therefore be asking:

‘Should we tell our pupils the exam materials will be made public in advance?’

‘If they submit a practice paper, are we able to mark it and give feedback, knowing that it could end up being an exam question?’

Should we tell our pupils the exam materials will be made public in advance?

From a legal perspective, there is not one right answer to these questions. However, our view is that hiding the fact that exam questions will be publicly released may actively disadvantage your students compared to pupils in other schools (in so far as any school’s approach to teacher assessed grades is comparable). It is likely many pupils will know this in any event, so to announce it to all pupils ensures a more level playing field within your school, which will help teachers when deciding grades.

While the marking of past papers is normal practice to support revision, the school could be opening itself up to criticism if some pupils had their actual exam papers marked with feedback in advance, whereas others did not. Therefore, in those subjects where it is relevant, our recommendation would be that teachers continue to mark past papers, but that a blanket policy of not providing feedback on new materials is issued, if the school is going to use the new materials in its exams.

How can we protect ourselves from the criticism that we have unfairly inflated our grades?

We anticipate there will be significant grade inflation this year, as current indications suggest that exam boards will not question the professional judgement of teachers, unless there is a manifest error in the results in light of the controversy resulting from the aborted use of rankings and the Ofqual algorithm in 2020.

Grade inflation will affect schools differently. Schools that already benefit from strong academic results will see less grade inflation simply because a larger proportion of their grades may already be at A and A*, so there is a limit to how much higher they can go. Those schools with lower grade averages could potentially see significant inflation if a greater proportion of students see their average results rise by two or more grades.

Grade inflation is complicated and not usually born out of a desire to give students a better grade than they deserve. Many schools will wish to avoid inflating their grades because of the negative impact it may have on future year groups and the near-inevitable drop in results when life returns to normal.

Each school will have a different approach as to how to grade their pupils, which may involve using mini-exam results, class work, course work and professional judgement. In the independent sector, we understand that most schools will rely heavily on internal exams.

In the circumstances, with students potentially being able to see their exam papers in advance, it is likely that this will result in some pupils getting better results than they would have otherwise.

Our view is that schools can only ensure that they can justify their grades as being reasonable in line with the evidence base available to them in each individual case. Brave would be the teacher who decided to mark down their student because, notwithstanding their results to date, they probably would not have performed to that level in a public exam in normal circumstances.

There will be discussion about grade inflation at a national level but students will have every reason to feel confident this year. Provided your percentage grade inflation is not so far out of kilter with the national average or your competitor schools as to stand out, it is more likely that any criticism you receive will come from disgruntled students who believe they were marked too harshly.

How do we prepared for contested grades?

It is likely your school will already have a wealth of experience of managing parent and student complaints as a result of Centre Assessed Grades in 2020. There will be lessons learnt from that experience which will hopefully help your school manage disputes this year. These might include:

  • ensuring that all evidence used to decide grades is kept, in so far as possible, and that teachers keep their ‘workings’ for deciding grades where the use of their discretion moves the result away from the empirical evidence.
  • attempting, where possible, to rely on exam board guidance, when published. Although you are not legally required to do so, your school may feel on safer ground if you can point to independent exam board guidance to justify your position.
  • preparing a policy explaining how disputes relating to Teacher Assessed Grades will be managed, the role of the school as opposed to the role of the exam board (particularly in relation to appeals which schools will only facilitate but not decide upon), and the limited power of the school to uplift contested grades where there has been no manifest error.

How do we manage special circumstances?

This year has not been easy for most learners and arguably, the entire student body is a ‘special case’ in this respect. Thus, the lack of public examinations, the release of materials in advance and in some cases, open book exams, can be justified.

However, there is also likely to be a proliferation of students formally requesting support from their school in light of special circumstances, unique to them, which will affect their ability to perform on the day, whether that is due to their mental or physical health or that of their immediate families.

This year schools are expected to decide how to respond to these cases, rather than passing them on to the exam boards. The system has always been relatively opaque, which does not make it easy to decide how to prioritise certain cases over others.

The position is made more complicated because teachers may be assessing students based on a range of results including classwork throughout the year, rather than simply using their examination grade. Therefore the wellbeing of the student earlier in the year may potentially be relevant in this respect.

This is not an easy area, but our recommendation would be to follow the Joint Council on Qualification guidelines, which sets out the level of percentage uplift (up to a maximum of 5%) to offer to students dependent on their circumstances. For example, a 1% uplift for stress or anxiety for which medication has been prescribed through to a 5% uplift where the candidate has suffered the death of a parent.

This could be used not only to adjust internal examination results, but also, potentially, a coursework or classwork grading which then feeds into the overall grade.

Senior leaders will need to use their discretion, and a committee could be set up to review difficult cases so that decisions are being taken corporately and checked by a number of people. The policy or guidelines you rely on could be shared with parents as part of the process as well as any process of appeal to the exam board.

What next?

This year, as last, the landscape for grading is highly politicised and schools still do not have a full picture for what Teacher Assessed Grades will look like by the time their students take their exams. Changes of policy and additional guidelines can be expected. We will continue to keep a watch over the process and will publish updates and advice on material changes so look out for further Short Thoughts on this topic.