An Entirely Avoidable Mess and how to make it worse!

The roots of this week’s A-level results fiasco can be traced back to Michael Gove’s obsession with one-hit terminal exams. His nostalgic motion that if it was good enough for me then it’s good enough for today’s young people was always destined to hit the buffers somewhere. The latest announcement about using mock examination results as the basis for an appeal is simply going to make things worse.

Anybody who understands the purpose of teacher assessments appreciates that they are going to involve the allegedly awful consequence of grade inflation. If an education system is any good and if children learn more as a consequence then grade inflation should be the outcome but that’s a bit difficult for right-wing politicians to understand. Teachers aren’t corrupt either. The teacher assessment takes into account the work done by a student over two years and posits what their best performance would be given an obliging examination paper, hard work in the final run-up and no nerves. Inevitably, therefore, the assessments are bound to be higher than the final outcomes from an examination. It’s a good process where it is used, for example, to award a grade to a student who misses the final exam because of some personal or family disaster which is entirely out of their control or to provide a post examination analysis of where things went wrong.

There is one other element to the teacher assessment which is that a good proportion of the candidates are in schools where parents have paid considerable sums of money for them to succeed. That’s a significant pressure on the teachers who work in those schools who, for quite intelligible commercial reasons, will be required to inflate assessments by the school management and hierarchy. It means that these teacher assessments are not quite the same as the others.

Mock examinations are not the same as teacher assessments either although they are often confused. They are simply not designed to be externally valid. Some schools seeking a very high pass rate in examinations will use them as a gateway to entry. Some teachers will use them to challenge lazy pupils and some teachers will use them to encourage the nervous underachiever. These are commonsense approaches to student learning but it makes a mockery of using them as a basis for some kind of appeals process.

What Ofqual did wrong, perhaps for understandable reasons, was to try to maintain a similar standard in terms of past percentages between this year and last, taking into account the teacher estimates and the past performances of pupils. When examination authorities do this they like to respect the teachers and the school’s order of merit but move the grade borderlines up and down to get the outcome they prefer. This preferred outcome is influenced by the school’s previous results and can also include analysis of the assessments made at key stage 2 or eleven years of age and the impact of the result on national statistics.

You don’t have to be a statistician to realise that this process is going to disadvantage a very bright child in a neighbourhood comprehensive and produce bizarre outcomes in schools where an additional factor like gentrification, an influx of refugees, changes to the school’s catchment or simply considerable pupil mobility over five years undermines the mathematics.

Worse still in the current situation the approach doesn’t benefit rapidly improving schools of the kind which the government likes to trumpet where, for all sorts of reasons, standards might be expected to rise faster than the average. In overall terms and for everyone, it is the students on grade borderlines or thereabouts who are likely to lose out but they are also likely, given that this is an A-level, to have concerned, middle-class voting parents who know how to complain!

Could things have been different? The answer is that without Michael Gove’s intervention the assessments would have been considerably more reliable. It was only a few years ago that there were AS Levels which assessed the first year of a two-year A Level course, there were modular exams where credit for the candidate was accumulated over the whole two years and there was coursework, distinct from teacher assessment because it was evidence presented by the candidate to meet external criteria. Additionally, coursework was often approached under test conditions. Had any of these approaches survived they would have provided a statistically reliable component to provide the starting point for a valid assessment.

Is anything to be done? The Scottish approach of giving people teacher assessed grades and biting the bullet of single year significant grade inflation may be justifiable given the challenges which the pandemic has created for young people. It will also encourage some interesting research options! If it turned out that the young people who get places at Scottish universities with these 2020 grades go on to perform at degree level just as well as their peers from any other year that would be interesting. It might suggest that we have an examination system which is managed to depress the achievements of young people and to restrict access to what are perceived to be high status professional careers while acting as a brake on the aspirations of the disadvantaged seeking a better future. Perhaps a little grade inflation is not such a bad thing after all!

 

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