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How will GCSEs and A-Levels be assessed this year?

By Sarah Harris

After last summer’s grading fiasco, the awarding of this year’s GCSEs and A-Levels will be a crucial test for the government. Exams will be replaced by teacher assessment for the second year running due to the amount of schooling missed by teenagers during the coronavirus pandemic.

Staff will be able to choose from – and mark – a range of evidence to underpin assessments including coursework, in-class tests set by schools, optional questions set by exam boards and mock exams. Teachers will tell pupils which pieces of work count towards their grade, before this is submitted to the exam board.

Exam regulator, Ofqual, is not setting any requirements about the minimum amount of content that should be taught or assessed, but many schools are worried about how they can accurately assess teenagers after such ‘dramatic’ levels of learning loss.

Earlier this month, OCR chief executive, Jilly Duffy, warned that some students will have ‘lost so much learning that it will be difficult to award them a grade at all’.

Exam boards will issue grade descriptions to help teachers make consistent assessments – broadly pegged to performance standards from previous years. Headteachers will have to sign off the grades before they are submitted to exam boards by June 18.

No algorithm will be used by Ofqual to standardise teachers’ grades if they appear too generous. This follows the debacle last year when thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm before Ofqual U-turned and allowed teachers’ predictions.

Instead, exam boards will be expected to have ‘rigorous’ quality assurance processes in place to ensure grades are ‘fair and consistent’ through a combination of random sampling and more targeted scrutiny.  But concerns are already mounting about an impending dilution of standards. In a webinar on March 17, Ofqual revealed that A-level and GCSE pupils will get sight of the exam boards’ mini assessments and mark schemes that teachers can use to help grade them.

Sam Freedman, ex-advisor to Michael Gove said the ‘whole thing is a car crash’ and Paul Caden, Head of Science at Horsforth School in Leeds, tweeted: ‘What? Please tell me this is a joke.’  Unfortunately, it is not. Education Secretary Gavin Williamson’s fear of anything remotely resembling a computer algorithm now means he has veered to the opposite extreme. There appears to be very little standardisation and far fewer incentives for schools to submit carefully evidenced grades.

When they do, they are likely to be challenged on an industrial scale.

Pupils can submit an appeal to their school to discover if an administrative error has been made, in which case a revised grade can be submitted. If a school does not believe a mistake has occurred, it will be expected to appeal to the exam board on the student’s behalf.

Results’ days have been brought forward to August 10 for AS and A-levels and August 12 for GCSEs, to prevent appealing students from missing out on university places.

Ian Bauckham, interim chair of Ofqual, recently had to step in and warn that parents should not attempt to ‘negotiate’ with teachers over predicted grades.  He told an Association of School and College Leaders’ conference on March 18 that it would be ‘wrong and fundamentally unfair’ if teacher judgements are subject to pressure from pupils and their families.  Students could end up at universities or sixth form colleges ‘for which they were ill-prepared’ if this happens, he said.

Universities are bracing themselves for the inevitable fall out. They face even greater difficulty distinguishing between top achieving candidates this year amid grade inflation – possibly as high as 10-15 per cent.

Some students may have to defer as there are unlikely to be enough places on all degree courses, particularly at top institutions. Cambridge has already introduced an ‘over-subscription’ clause to its offers, allowing it to withdraw places if too many students meet its entrance criteria.

Mr Williamson is surely hoping for a smoother ride this August, but the journey is looking decidedly bumpy. At stake is his career in the Department for Education as well as the long-term credibility of GCSEs and A-levels. A computer algorithm would probably predict dangers ahead.

Sarah Harris is a freelance education journalist who regularly writes for the national press. She is a former education correspondent at the Daily Mail.

(Photo credit: Bryanston School)

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