The impact of exam changes on students explained

It became apparent early on in this pandemic that exams would have to be cancelled. The Government boldly promised that no child would be at a disadvantage.

The announcement that a school’s historic exam performance will play a role in how grades are standardised has raised concerns that the potential of disadvantaged pupils and turnaround schools will be undermined.

Read the full blog on The RSA’s website here

How are exams being calculated this year

Schools and colleges were asked to use their available evidence – mock exams, classwork and homework assignments – to predict the grades a pupil would have most likely achieved. Teachers were then asked to rank pupils within each grade boundary from the most to the least secure.

Schools’ predicted grades would be standardised by Ofqual. The exam board regulator has based its statistical model on ‘the prior attainment of this year’s cohort, expected national grade distribution and school’s historic results’.

Just 26 per cent of teachers think this year’s exam system will be fair to all – and as with many things during this pandemic, the pupils in the most deprived areas will be at the greatest risk of disadvantage.

Legacy of results

School leaders have warned that standardising grades by analysing school performance over the previous three years without considering any trajectory of improvement leaves pupils in rapidly transforming schools at a substantial disadvantage. No child should lose out because of the legacy of their school.

A Select Committee of MPs criticised Ofqual for lack of transparency, calling for them to publish further details – they should ‘not be afraid of scrutiny or open debate over whether its model offers the fairest outcome for every student and provider’.

Optimistic grades downgraded

Figures show ‘very optimistic’ teacher-assessed grades would have resulted in a nine percent improvement in GCSE results this year – an unprecedented increase. Consequently, a ‘substantial number of pupils will receive results where at least one grade has been adjusted to avoid grade inflation’.

Rigour is needed to ensure grades awarded this year can be granted with integrity. ‘Optimistic’ teachers are not using this crisis to bolster their schools’ position in league tables. Jon Coles, Chief Executive of United Learning sums it up, ‘the cost of undergrading is so much higher than the cost of overgrading’ to young peoples’ life chances.

Unconscious bias

Even before the process of standardisation, young people expressed concern about this year’s predicted exam results. 43 percent of working-class pupils are concerned the new assessment system will negatively affect their grades and consequent future pathways.

This concern is not unwarranted. While teachers have done a remarkable job under the current circumstances, evidence shows unconscious bias in teacher assessments can underpredict certain ethnic minority, FSM and SEND pupils. For those pupils who may have already been underpredicted, the standardisation process may only knock down their grade further.

The ‘well-heeled and sharp-elbowed’

The appeals criteria set-out by Ofqual has been accused of favouring the ‘well-heeled and sharp-elbowed’ middle-class parents who know how to navigate the system. Instead, most pupils will be pushed toward sitting exams in the autumn to improve their predicted mark creating further issues of inequality.

Read the full blog on The RSA’s website here