Exam Results - Could do Better.
The headlines are alarming. We are used to having a system that benchmarks our pupils against a common standard. We may seek a re-mark here and there, but there has been a genuine trust in the assessment frameworks we use. This year, as with so many things, this faith has been shaken. Exam boards are trying to make the best of a bad job. The International Baccalaureate Organisation (IBO) has been first in the firing line and it has faced withering criticism. As A-level results day approaches, the masses are starting to question the fairness of it all. What does this mean for pupils, parents, schools and universities?
Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, notes that in truth nobody really knows. The points raised included likely reduced international students and possible flexibility from universities with their places, appeals and re-sits. (Lenon, 2020)
The IBO used a mix of student coursework, predicted grades and historical school data. This is perhaps where the IBO has come un-stuck and where the A-level grading system for this year may also flounder. The use of historical data for a school can penalise students who are part of a small cohort or a minority subject. Past poor performance can bring an average down in a way that schools or classes with larger cohorts will not experience. Equally, strong performance in small groups can do the reverse, prejudicing the results for students elsewhere. Smaller cohorts (or samples) make for less reliable generalisations. Each individual carries a bigger weighting. The A-level marking is set to follow a similar path, with historical data playing a pivotal role in grades achieved.
Ofqual (Ofqual Guidance, 2020) does not oﬀer a lot of clarity on the process of applying historical data to the results this year. Indeed, as someone who previously worked with statisticians and school leaders, I can vouch for the idea that too much detail here may serve only to irritate many. How many of us are equipped to handle that information accurately and with the deft touch needed to assuage pupil and parental concerns?
So what is the answer? There is scope to challenge the grades received post results day. Even in the days of exams, re-marks rarely yielded any significant change - such are the marking protocols of most exam boards, but there is nothing to re-mark now. Re-sits in the autumn are an option - you need your exam entries in by the 4th of September and the exams will take place between the 5th and 23rd of October. For some this may be too late for acceptance to their preferred university choice, but that may not be a bad thing. Novice pilots often go-around again to get it right, and some students may opt to do it this way, perhaps securing themselves a much stronger oﬀer and enjoying some of the benefits of a year out in the meantime. There may be alternative pathways into a chosen career and individuals who have fallen short should be encouraged to explore these. Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary, is also looking at possibly moving enrolment dates around. It is not impossible in the current climate that universities may allow for a January entry. What can we do? Good quality counsel on results day, parental management, solid communication and pre-emptive communication would appear to be the best course of action. A conversation, a meeting, a calm voice armed with quality information is often enough to help people move from emotional choices to objective decisions, definitely where we need to be for these big life choices.
On pragmatism versus fairness, I am torn. The blank canvas and unabashed hope of Y12 and Y13 are rare and lost all too soon as we join the adult world. Do we trample on this a year too soon and allow youngsters to realise that life can be unfair? Teaching youngsters how to manage this could be a useful lesson. Alternatively, do we safeguard that innocence as long as we can and fight for the fairness we enjoyed under our usual system? Fairness and integrity are ideals we should seek to live-up to. I am ultimately an idealist, so I would fight every inch for the ideal. There are people who may be more pragmatic. They may take a diﬀerent approach. Either way, our position of trust and responsibility is something we, as a profession, have consistently lived up to and more. The very fact that you are reading this shows you care deeply about your students and it is likely they already know that.
Christopher Scorer MA, BA, PGCE, CELTA
Chris is a former teacher, Housemaster, Deputy Head and school advisor for Cambridge University Centre for Evaluation and Monitoring. He is founder of Key Education Consultants who support schools and students with their university applications. In his work he has overseen over 2000 university applications to institutions around the world. He has worked in the UK, New Zealand, Canada, Spain, Italy and China. Key Education Consultants offer all of the usual compliance guarantees you would expect in a UK school and they do not take any commissions from universities - thus guaranteeing the impartiality of their advice.
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Lenon, B. (2020). Advice for university applicants in 2020 - ISC. [online] www.isc.co.uk. Available at: https://www.isc.co.uk/media-enquiries/isc-blogs/advice-for-university-applicants-in-2020/ [Accessed 13 Jul. 2020].
https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/ f ile/897425/ Summer_2020_grades_for_GCSE__AS_and_A_level__Extended_Project_Qualification_and_Advan ced_Extension_Award_in_maths_020720.pdf. (2020). Ofqual Guidance.
Williams, Z. (2020). This year, GCSE and A-level results depend on teachers being unbiased. That’s the real test. The Guardian. [online] 7 Jul. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jul/07/gcse-a-level-resultsteachers-unbiased-schools-universities-2020-results [Accessed 13 Jul. 2020].