A degree of uncertainty: Results day in a pandemic and the problem with grade inflation

In just a few hours, A level results will be released for students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. This has prompted intense speculation over how Wednesday’s decision to axe the moderation of Scottish exam results and instead accept predicted grades will be transferred to the rest of the United Kingdom. Without such changes, students from regions dispensing with moderation will be competing for university places with a significant advantage compared to their moderated counterparts.

The debate over results and the fairness of the moderation systems used to alter them began in Scotland. On the 7th of August hundreds of parents, students and teachers met at George Square in Glasgow to protest what they saw as unfair grade moderation by the SQA (Scottish Qualifications Authority). This was in response to the release of public exam results in Scotland three days earlier. Following moderation, over 125,000 predicted grades were moderated down. This number accounts for a quarter of all SQA grades. In contrast, just 10,000 grades were moderated up. 

Unsurprisingly, hundreds of thousands of students in Scotland were extremely disappointed as a result of these overwhelmingly ‘negative’ changes, with many reporting that they have missed offers to university or other post-school opportunities. Many parents thought that SQA should have just taken all predicted grades at face value, without moderation, as a result of the exceptional circumstances conferred by this year’s Covid-19 outbreak. Anger has thus mounted towards a perceived lack of trust towards teachers by the exam board.

A main point of contention has been the disparity in moderation between students from richer compared to poorer backgrounds. According to data from the Equality Impact Assessment, the richest 20% of students saw only a 6.9% reduction in grades from their 91.5% pass rate prediction. By contrast, the poorest 20% suffered a 15.2% reduction  from their estimated 85.1% pass rate. 

These moderation results were obtained by SQA by taking an average of individual school’s past results. Teachers were asked to rank each student within their classes based on how they thought they would do in comparison to their classmates, for example from 1 to 19. Then, SQA would moderate students’ results based on their predicted grades and the class ranking assigned to each student by their teacher to fit every student into a spectrum broadly representative of each school’s average attainment in recent years. In 96% of cases, a moderated result was only changed by one grade. Thus, each school would perform similarly to how it has done in the past. 

Where this system runs into issues is that it does not account for the outlying overachievers who beat their predicted results every year. However, one must remember that UCAS allows up to 5 universities to be chosen to allow each student to have contingency plans in case of missing places or grades. Yet, most people seem to be angry because exceptional students lost the ability to beat their predicted grades and excel. A free appeals service where assessment evidence can be submitted for review, combined with the option to retake exams next year seems to have been SQA’s plan to allow students who feel they have been hard done by to attain results more reflective of their abilities. Yet, in many cases students who already have a university offer would be disadvantaged by having to take a year out of education and would be required to replan considerably and in some cases students do not have the money to do this, obviously particularly those from poorer backgrounds.

Nevertheless, blanket confirmation of predicted grades is not a good solution as they are not a good measure of final attainment. A 2016 UCU study finds that “only 16% of applicants achieved the A-level grade points that they were predicted to achieve,” additionally, a staggering 75% of candidates were “overpredicted.” The study particularly notes that students from poorer backgrounds or students expected to achieve lower grades are far more likely to be over predicted. This is partly because top candidates predicted straight A*’s cannot overachieve and it becomes increasingly harder to overachieve in general the higher one’s grades become. The study postulates that teachers used predicted grades as a target to work towards, not merely a prediction, and a low target would hardly encourage a student to try to work hard. This also helps to explain the disparity between the richest and poorest student’s moderated values, as SQA based their results on previous attainment and poorer schools are consistently more overpredicted, this disparity can be seen in a more logical light.

Even so, it does not seem fair to grant predicted grades when so few students actually meet them and arguments that not accepting predicted grades is a sign of distrust in the judgement of teachers seem foolish as teacher’s predictions seem to be fairly unreliable. Many students seem to be able to achieve their predictions if they work very hard, but these predictions are by no means guaranteed reflection of final attainment. The lack of any exam in which to prove that they have worked hard is what makes these systems of moderation most unfair, unfortunately there seems no alternative to identify those who will exceed expectations out of the crowd of people who will not. Autumn retakes seem the only way to allow these students an opportunity to thrive, although as already mentioned taking a year out comes with its own complications.

Focusing in on England, where results will be released tomorrow, a “triple lock” system has been introduced to try to make sure no one is unfairly disadvantaged by the Covid pandemic. This system means pupils may be given the highest grade out of their mocks, predicted grades, and exams in the autumn. The problem with this strategy is that mocks in particular are not regulated at all, they are organised and composed by individual schools. Additionally, there is no moderation or marking consistency between schools. Thus, this system, whilst pleasing far more students by giving out a greater number of higher marks, will be just as unfair as the existing moderation systems put into place by exam boards before this week, if for different reasons. 

England’s exam watchdog has continued to argue against allocating grades solely by teacher’s predictions as this would contribute to a rise in attainment of A and A star grades to as high as 38% of all total entries in England. This would be the highest single year increase ever. For reference, in the year 2002, A grades or higher accounted for around 22% of all grades and by 2019 this number has risen and fallen but reached 25.2%, a sudden spike to nearly 40% would be unprecedented and would further dilute the meaning of such top grades which, in the 60s, only the very best 5% of students achieved. 

Thus, according to The Daily Telegraph, the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, has ruled out following the u-turn of his Scottish counterpart in solely following the recommendations of teachers. He added that this ‘would devalue the results… and be unfair’ on previous and future A Level students. If students this year receive such high grades, they will be extremely advantaged in finding jobs or university places against their counterparts from other years.

All is not doom and gloom however, an anticipated drop in foreign students is expected to lead to universities across the country accepting more students, even those who might have missed their predicted grades, in order to fill places and secure revenues hit hard by the current pandemic. Thus, it may yet be possible for underachieving students to continue with their first choice university plans, even without destroying the value of qualifications they have worked so hard for over the past 2-3 years of their lives.

Opinion:

On 4th August, John Swinney, SNP’s Scottish Cabinet secretary for Education congratulated young Scottish people for bringing the pass rate “up” in this year’s SQA exams. In doing so, he has completely missed the purpose that such qualifications exist to fulfil.They are, by design, not supposed to be something which everyone wins at, because their purpose is the stratification of the population in order to allow universities and jobs to select candidates based on merit. 

There is a reason we do not award everyone an A* in England, it would be a pointless exercise. The more people who have an A*, the less an A* means, its value comes from its nature as an indicator of exceptional talent. However, almost imperceptibly, year by year, more and more people have been attaining top grades at GCSE, A Level, and University. This so-called grade inflation is a detrimental factor because by allowing everyone to ‘excel’ it removes the ability of anyone at all to truly excel.

SQA moderated their exams the way they did to try to make sure that students would achieve grades which would actually matter, and the 2-3% increases in attainment for all higher grades ensured that this year would still be an exceptional one for students. It seems like the benefit of the doubt was being offered to some extent, and single grade moderations were to be used so that students would only be moderated a small amount based on the professional judgement of teachers within their classes. Is it inherently fair to change grades based on a teacher driven class ranking system guiding placement of students on a scale composed of an average of a schools past performance? Of course not. Is it any fairer to allocate grades based purely on a teachers judgement, purely putting the results of students in the hands of teachers who could be more or less optimistic about their students results? I doubt it, although it will make far more people much happier. 

For the Government there is no path which will not upset people because there is no path without a full exam season which will allow every candidate to sink or swim by their own merit, but crashing the value of exam results seems particularly short sighted and detrimental to the long term futures of these students. The advantage seems to be short term popularity points, a constant motivator for the SNP, the drivers of the drop in moderation.

I have serious sympathy for the cohort of 2020 if it becomes apparent that it will be extremely hard to compete for top level opportunities when everyone has the same qualifications, except those paradoxically from richer backgrounds who were provided with better and more extra-curricular activities. As a student who himself missed his predicted grades but had sensible backups in place just in case, I understand the frustration of students who believed they could have done better than SQA’s results, yet I do not see a better path the government could have taken. By contrast, I think that the SNP’s decision to axe moderation is a travesty and will be detrimental to not just those from poorer backgrounds, but smart students in general. Tomorrow we will find out how wide ranging within the UK the grade inflation problem will be, and how advantaged Scottish students will be over their English, Welsh and Northern Irish counterparts.

By J Stirling

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