The complete fiasco surrounding this year’s exam results has left a generation battling disappointment, confusion and rising anxiety, at a time when they most needed certainty and calm. It was the right thing to move to teacher assessed grades as the only viable option available at the eleventh hour. But the place we have ended up is far from ideal.
There is no way to fairly award exam grades to students who never got the opportunity to sit them. Teacher assessed grades may well be the least bad option we now have available, but they are fraught with other challenges for fairness that should not be overlooked.
The attempt by Ofqual to moderate assessments was designed to provide fairness between cohorts, and to safeguard public confidence in the rigour of exam grades, as well as ensure that young people would be appropriately qualified for the future progression routes they were accepted on to.
The methodology for the algorithm was complicated because the problem it sought to address was itself hugely complicated, and despite the best efforts of many people to get it right, it clearly did not pass the fairness test when applied to many individual cases.
The idea of just one student missing out on opportunities through no fault of their own is anathema to everyone who holds the principle of fairness dear, so as soon as those stories began to emerge, the political pressure began to build on the government to change course in favour of teacher assessed grades – in England and Wales as it was in Scotland.
However, for disadvantaged students in particular, teacher assessed grades may create new challenges for fairness that we also need to take seriously.
According to a UCL study in 2016, only 16% of applicants achieved the A-level grade points that they were predicted to achieve, based on their best three A-levels, with students from minority ethnic backgrounds being particularly likely to exceed the predictions of their teachers. Despite a general tendency for teachers to over predict their students’ grades, certain groups of students were statistically more likely to be under predicted by their teachers, including high attaining students from disadvantaged backgrounds.
University and College admission procedures currently factor in the variability in predicted grades by offering conditional places, on the assumption that at least some students will not meet the grades they were hoping for. Without this stage in the process, Colleges and Universities will have to find some non-grade related criteria on which to assess who gets in, and this is could lead to discrimination against disadvantaged students, who are statistically less likely to access extracurricular activities than their more affluent peers.
There are growing calls on the government to remove the cap on places at Universities, and rightly so, but even without a cap there is finite capacity for Universities to provide high quality places.
Finally, pupils in more disadvantaged circumstances are less likely to successfully navigate an appeals process, or to be able to wait a year prior to accessing University, so access to redress is challenging for equity whatever system is used to calculate the initial grades.
I feel so deeply for all the students who have been affected by this chaos – which is by no means over. The government should immediately establish an independent review into how this year’s results were handled, so that we can ensure this never happens again.
Fiona Spellman, CEO, SHINE