This year’s A-level results day has sparked an outcry from students and schools, the likes of which has rarely been seen. Results day this year was already set to be a unique day from those that have gone before, with the government announcing on 18 March 2020, that GCSE and A-level exams will not take place in the current academic year to help fight the spread of Coronavirus (COVID-19).
On 3 April 2020, Ofqual announced that schools and colleges would be required to provide students with Centre Assessment Grades based on a wide range of teacher-assessed evidence, including classwork, previous exam results and non-exam assessments. It was felt by Ofqual that “schools and colleges are best placed to judge the likely performance of their students at the end of the course”.
The centre assessment grades were then put through a “process of standardisation” including an “historic grade distribution” which saw the issued grades for large numbers of students determined wholly or largely by reference to how students at the school in question had performed in the relevant subject over the previous three years. The regulator announced it places more weight on historical evidence of centre performance than submitted centre assessment grades “where that will increase the likelihood of students getting the grades that they would most likely have achieved had they been able to complete their assessments in summer 2020”.
This reliance on historical data did not allow for students who may have excelled particularly well this year despite the educational setting that they may have attended, and instead, would have their exam grade, in part, determined by factors unrelated to their individual academic ability. Therefore, students’ grades could be affected by the poor performance of their predecessors within the last three years. These concerns were highlighted in initial consultations over the process which Shoosmiths LLP contributed to.
In relation to any appeals process, it was decided that exam boards will only have to consider appeals submitted by schools, not by individual pupils. There would also be no provision for appeals “in respect of the operation or outcome of the statistical standardisation model”.
Shortly before the A level exam results being issued on Thursday 13 August 2020, the Education Secretary announced a triple lock system, in England, whereby students can pick their best results from their calculated grade, their mock results, or exams in the autumn, if they decide to take them then. The change meant that if pupils get an estimated grade lower than their mock exam they can appeal - but this will still have to be done through their school, with the terms for approving appeals still to be decided by the exam watchdog. Ofqual stated, ‘it will not release details of the standards of evidence required to appeal grades based on mock results until next week.’
On results day, it was found that "downgrading" of almost 40% of student results had occurred due to the standardisation model, with students’ being graded lower than their teachers predicted and 3% were down two grades. This led to anger and distress amongst students and teachers.
Despite the distress and anger caused, Ofqual had yet to release details of the appeal process involving the ‘triple lock system’. On Saturday 15 August, Ofqual set out what constituted a ‘valid’ mock exam for students appealing against A-level results in England. But these criteria were very quickly suspended on the following day with further information to be published ‘in due course’. A Department for Education statement on Sunday evening said that Ofqual ’"continues to consider how to best deliver the appeals process to give schools and pupils the clarity they need’.
The appeals process was far from clear from the statistical model that had been applied. with time ticking away for students who were attempting to secure university places, the question as to why teacher assessed grades could not be used was yet to be answered.
Yesterday, on 17 August 2020, the government addressed the question and announced that teacher assessed grades would be used instead of the moderated grades adjusted by the algorithm, if the teacher assessed grades were higher than the moderated marks. This applies to A-levels and GCSEs. They have been used in Northern Ireland and Scotland after a U-turn from the First Minister in Scotland acknowledging their own mistakes in applying a standardised process.
In relation to the appeals process, the Education Secretary has stated that mock exam results will no longer be a key part of the process for A-level and GCSE students. Students can sit exams in the autumn if they are unsatisfied with both their calculated grade and centre assessment grade. More guidance on appeals is yet to be issued, but exam boards only have a matter of weeks to issue outcomes as the UCAS deadline for applicants to meet their offer conditions is 7 September.
GSCE results day, upcoming this week, will now hopefully avoid the outcry, anger and distress experienced by A-level students over the last week. And A-level students will now look to attempt to secure university places amidst fears over capacity and stretched resources amongst universities.