Opinion: Record grade inflation isn’t the only thing that’s different about this year’s exams

The unprecedented A-level and GCSE scores raise challenging questions about how to measure future student cohorts, says Dr Gill Wyness (UCL Institute of Education).

This week’s GCSE and A-level results confirmed the expectations of many who study education policy: the proportion of students achieving top grades has increased substantially compared to 2019, especially at A-level. Students should be extremely proud of their results, which were achieved under very difficult circumstances. Likewise, teachers have worked hard to make the best assessment they can of their pupils’ performance. But there is no getting around the fact that these results are different - and not directly comparable - with pre-Covid results.

It is right to allow for the fact that students taking GCSEs and A-levels this year and last are at a disadvantage compared with previous cohorts. In-person exams would have been next to impossible in 2020, and those assessed this year have missed significant amounts of schooling.

To deal with this, the government chose an entirely different means of measuring performance: teacher assessments. (I was among those who advocated a different approach, based on more flexible exams, in 2021.) This year’s approach has been rather more orderly than last year’s chaos, but the wide range of measures that teachers could consider - such as mock exams, in-class tests and coursework - inevitably led to variations in how schools assessed their pupils.

This year’s grades may also be capturing average or "best" performance across a range of pieces of work, rather than a snapshot from one or two exams. This seems to have been particularly true at A-level, where grades have immediate consequences for university entry decisions. In short, it is unsurprising that grades based on teacher assessment are higher than those based on exams alone: while some have called this grade inflation, it may be more accurate to say that they are capturing different information.

But given they have been presented on the same scale, the stark increase in grades compared with pre-Covid times presents significant challenges for current and future cohorts.

Even making comparisons between pupils within the 2021 cohort may be challenging. Using teacher assessment is likely to have disadvantaged some students relative to others. Previous research has shown that Black Caribbean pupils are more likely than white pupils to receive a grade from their teacher that is below their score in an externally marked test taken at the same time. Similarly, girls have been found to perform better at coursework, while boys do better at exams on average. Differences between girls and boys have been particularly apparent this year, with girls seeing larger improvements than boys in performance compared with before the pandemic.

This year’s record high scores raise challenging questions. The much larger proportion of pupils getting As and A*s, at A-level, for example, may lead to universities relying more heavily on alternative methods of distinguishing between applicants - such as personal statements - which have been shown to entrench (dis)advantage.

There is also the all-important question of what to do next year: are this year’s grade distributions the right starting point, or should we be looking to return to something closer to the 2019 distributions? Is it possible to go back? And would we want to?

Assuming in-person exams are feasible next year, one possibility would be to return to 2019’s system as if nothing had happened. This would probably see substantial reductions in the proportion of students getting top grades. One can only imagine the political challenge of trying to do this.

Even more important is that the next cohorts of GCSE and A-level students (and indeed the ones that follow - we are tracking the experiences of those taking GCSEs this year as part of a new UK Research and Innovation-funded cohort study, Cosmo) have also been affected by the pandemic, arguably to a greater degree than this year’s. They are therefore likely to underperform their potential and get lower grades than cohorts who took their exams before the pandemic struck. That is clearly not desirable.

It is important to continue making allowances for the exceptional circumstances young people have faced during this crucial stage of their education. During the period affected by pandemic learning loss, my suggestion, along with that of colleagues, would be to design exams with more flexibility, allowing candidates to choose which questions to answer based on their strengths, as is common in university exams. This would enable a return to the fairest way to assess students - exams - while still taking account of lost learning.

Either way, any return to exam-based grades is likely to result in an immediate and pronounced drop in results compared with the last two years. Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, has suggested that the government will aim instead for a "glide path back to a more normal state of affairs". This would smooth out the unfairness of sharp discontinuities between cohorts. But it would mean moving away from grades being based on the same standard over time, instead setting quotas of students allowed to achieve each grade each year, gradually reducing the higher grades and increasing the lower ones. Even if that seems a good plan now, it would be very hard to stick to: the fallout from the small reduction in pass rates seen in Scotland this week would be a taste of things to come for years.

A more radical possibility would be to reset the grading system entirely. This would get around the political issue of there being very large or deliberate, small reductions in grades for future cohorts, but you wonder whether this is the right time to undertake such a drastic overhaul. The pandemic will have repercussions on young people’s grades for years: is the best approach really a total reset right now?

The question of what to do next is one that policymakers will have to grapple with over the coming months and years. Of greater urgency, however, is that pupils have experienced widespread learning losses due to the pandemic - regardless of what their grades show - and are likely to be affected by these for years. Students require continuing support throughout the rest of their educational careers, including catch-up support throughout school, college and university.

We cannot simply award them grades and move on - the learning loss remains, and must be addressed.

This article originally appeared in The Guardian on 12 August 2021.


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