Summer 2020 exam grading system

21 April 2020

Following the announcement on 18 March 2020 that all GCSE and A-Level summer exams were cancelled, concerns have been raised regarding the government's contingency arrangements for grading pupils who are no longer able to sit their exams.

The government has directed that, shortly after Easter, schools will be required to submit 'centre assessment grades' to exam boards for each student in each subject they study. These grades will reflect the grade which the school believes the student would have achieved had they sat their exams in the summer. The grade should take into account a number of factors, including:

  1. performance in classwork during the year;
  2. mock exam results;
  3. non-exam assessment (even if not fully completed);
  4. previous results in the school for the particular subject;
  5. performance of this year's students compared to previous years; and
  6. any other relevant information.

These grades are distinguished from usual 'predicted grades' submitted to universities.

In order to help exam boards standardise the new grading system, schools must also rank each student on their likelihood of receiving each of the calculated grades. For example, if 5 students have been calculated at grade 6 in Mathematics, teachers will have to assign each of these students a rank from 1 to 5, with 1 being the most likely to achieve the grade and 5 being the least likely. Tied ranks will not be allowed. Where there is more than one subject teacher, as is the case in most schools, all of the teachers must agree on a shared view of the standard being applied to rank students. This may involve teachers discussing with each other what made them put certain students at the top and bottom of their rank order so that every teacher is applying the same standard.

The centre assessment grades will carry the same weight as normal GCSE and A-Level results, and the government are aiming to provide every student with their grades before the end of July.

In their guidance to Heads of Centres, Ofqual has advised that schools should only submit centre assessment grades for students where they have sufficient evidence to make a judgement of what they would have achieved if the exams went ahead.

Whilst the submission date for calculated grades has yet to be announced, Ofqual has stated that it will not be earlier than 29 May 2020, and there will be a period of two weeks in which to submit the data.

If students are unhappy with their calculated grades, and they feel that the correct process for calculating them has not been followed, they will be able to appeal their grade. The appeal arrangements will be subject to consultation shortly. If students accept that the correct process has been followed, but that the resulting grade is still not reflective of their ability, it is not clear whether they will have the opportunity to appeal in the same way. However, they will be able to sit an exam as soon as possible after schools and colleges reopen, or in Summer 2021.

Schools should be cautious about setting students extra work with which to calculate their centre assessment grade. If students are unable to complete additional work, they cannot be penalised, and if the result of the extra work suggests a change in performance, schools should be wary about allowing it to change the student's calculated grade.

Potential impact of new measures

Unforgiving calculated grades

The main concern for many students will be that they are disappointed with their calculated grades, particularly if they are lower than the entry requirements of their desired universities. Many students put a significant amount of effort into revising for final exams, and often significantly improve their performance at the end of the year. Such students will feel that this system has robbed them of the opportunity to prove themselves in an exam setting.

Ranking students

Whilst it is undoubtedly important to standardise grades across different schools, the proposed ranking system could have flaws. Joint general secretary of the NEU teaching union, Mary Bousted, has pointed out that many teachers will be 'uncomfortable' with ranking students, particularly if that means that grades will be rationed. As students cannot receive equal ranking, some equally able students may be subject to arbitrary detriment.

Early entry GCSE students

The new system also presents an issue for schools who require or allow students to complete GCSEs in years 9 and 10. Ofqual indicates that it is reserving the 'centre assessment grade' system for students who are in Year 11 upwards.

This could potentially have a negative impact on the school careers of early entrants. By the time they are able to sit their cancelled exams in the Autumn Term or Summer 2021, their familiarity with the subject matter will have likely diminished, and they will require additional teaching to make sure they are properly prepared to sit them. This could be a large administrative and financial burden on schools. This problem will be aggravated if the syllabus of a particular course is due to change in the next school year. The burden of having to study an extra GCSE in the new year may have a deleterious effect on students' other subjects, and in some cases, may mean that subjects from the 2019/20 school year will have to be abandoned altogether. This will deprive some students of a qualification which they would otherwise have obtained.

Ofqual has indicated that they intend to launch a consultation on early entrants shortly, as well as on their model of standardisation and appeal arrangements. However, no opening date for the consultation has yet been announced. It is possible that some respondents will seek to challenge the measures for early entrants on the grounds of age discrimination. While on the face of it these measures could be discriminatory, it is possible that they will be justifiable as a legitimate social policy aim in view of the unprecedented situation. If consultation does not deliver a change in the proposals for early entrants, it is possible that we may also see the proposed measures challenged in court.

Ofqual's full guidance for teachers, students, parents and carers on the new grading system can be found here. Their guidance for Heads of Centre can be found here.

For more information please contact Vicky Wilson or your usual Wilsons contact.

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