A-levelling up: the thorny path back from teacher assessed grades
By Blog Editor, on 12 August 2021
By Jake Anders, Claire Crawford, and Gill Wyness
This piece first appeared on theGuardian.com.
This week’s GCSE and A level results confirmed the expectations of many who study education policy: the proportion of students achieving top grades in these qualifications has increased substantially compared to 2019, especially at A level. Students themselves should be extremely proud of their results, which were achieved under very difficult circumstances. Likewise, teachers have worked extremely hard to make the best assessment they can of their pupils’ performance. But there is no getting around the fact that these results are different – and not directly comparable with – pre-Covid results.
It is right to allow for the fact that students taking GCSEs and A levels this year and last are at a disadvantage compared to previous cohorts. In-person exams would have been next to impossible in 2020, and those assessed this year have missed significant amounts of schooling.
To deal with this, the government chose an entirely different means of measuring performance: teacher assessments. (We advocated a different approach, based on more flexible exams, in 2021.) This year’s approach has been rather more orderly than last year’s chaos, but the wide range of measures that teachers could consider – such as mock exams, in-class tests and coursework – inevitably led to variation in how schools assessed their pupils.
This year’s grades may also be capturing average or ‘best’ performance across a range of pieces of work, rather than a snapshot from one or two exams. This seems to have been particularly true at A level, where grades have immediate consequences for university entry decisions. In short, it is unsurprising that grades based on teacher assessment are higher than those based on exams alone: while some have called this grade inflation we think it’s more accurate to say that they are capturing different information.
But given they have been presented on the same scale, the stark increase in grades compared to pre-Covid times present significant challenges for current and future cohorts.
Even making comparisons between pupils within the 2021 cohort may be challenging. Using teacher assessment is likely to have disadvantaged some students relative to others. Previous research has shown that Black Caribbean pupils are more likely than white pupils to receive a grade from their teacher below their score in an externally marked test taken at the same time. Similarly, girls have also been found to perform better at coursework, while boys do better at exams on average. Differences by gender have been particularly apparent this year, with girls seeing larger improvements in performance than boys compared to pre-pandemic.
This year’s record high scores raise challenging questions. The much larger proportion of pupils getting As and A*s at A level, for example, may lead to universities relying more heavily on alternative methods of distinguishing between applicants – such as personal statements – which have been shown to entrench (dis)advantage.
There is also the all-important question of what to do next year: are this year’s grade distributions the right starting point, or should we be looking to return to something closer to the 2019 distribution? Is it possible to go back? And would we want to?
Assuming in-person exams are feasible next year, one possibility would be to return to 2019’s system as if nothing had happened. This would probably see substantial reductions in the proportion of students getting top grades, especially at A level. One can only imagine the political challenge of trying to do this.
Even more important is that the next cohorts of GCSE and A level students (and indeed the ones that follows – we are tracking the experiences of those taking GCSEs this year as part of a new UKRI-funded cohort study, COSMO) have also been affected by the pandemic, arguably to a greater degree than this year’s. They are therefore likely to underperform their potential and get lower grades than cohorts who took their exams before the pandemic struck. That is clearly not desirable.
It is important to continue making allowances for the exceptional circumstances young people have faced during this crucial time in their education. During the period affected by pandemic learning loss, our suggestion would be to design exams with more flexibility, allowing candidates to choose which questions to answer based on their strengths, as is common in university exams. This would enable a return to the fairest way to assess students – exams – while still taking account of lost learning.
Either way, any return to exam-based grades is likely to result in an immediate pronounced drop in results compared to the last two years, especially at A level. Gavin Williamson has suggested that the government will aim instead for a “glide path back to a more normal state of affairs”. This would smooth out the unfairness of sharp discontinuities between cohorts. But it would mean moving away from grades being based on the same standard over time, instead setting quotas of students allowed to achieve each grade, gradually reducing the higher grades and increasing the lower ones. Even if that seems a good plan now, it would be very hard to stick to: the fall-out from the small reduction in pass rates seen in Scotland this week would be a taste of things to come for years.
A more radical possibility would be to reset the grading system entirely. This would get around the political issue of there being very large or deliberate small falls in grades for future cohorts, but one wonders whether this is the right time to undertake such a drastic overhaul. The pandemic will have repercussions on young people’s grades for years to come: is the best approach really a total reset right now?
The question of what to do next is one that policymakers will have to grapple with over the coming months and years. Of more fundamental importance and urgency, however, is that pupils have experienced widespread learning losses due to the pandemic – regardless of what their grades show – and are likely to be affected by these for years. Students require ongoing support throughout the rest of their educational careers, including catch up support throughout school, college and university.
We cannot simply award them GCSE and A level grades that try to look past the learning they have lost and move on – the learning loss remains and must be addressed.
Dr Gill Wyness & Dr Jake Anders are deputy directors of the UCL Centre for Education Policy & Equalising Opportunities (CEPEO). Dr Claire Crawford is an associate professor at CEPEO.