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Responding to the Ofqual consultation on awarding grades? Some issues from our members to consider

Written By: Cat Scutt
13 min read
This article summarises some of our members' concerns around proposals for awarding grades this year

Back in October last year, I wrote for Schools Week about the complexity of the debate between exams and teacher assessment, and how I am always amazed and somewhat impressed by those who consider the solution to be entirely clear-cut. Now more than ever, the competing priorities and challenges seem almost impossible to reconcile, and there is certainly no easy way to design a system that is both fair and robust in the current context.

To inform the approaches that will be taken, Ofqual and the DfE have published a joint consultation on how GCSE, AS and A-level grades should be awarded in summer 2021 in addition to one on vocational qualifications, both of which close  on Friday 29th January. We know that there are huge pressures on teachers’ time, but we believe it is important that teachers respond and have their voices heard on a matter that will have a huge effect on our students, and will also impact significantly on teachers and school leaders.

There is no doubt that individual teachers’ views on what is being proposed will vary considerably, and is likely to be influenced by not just the settings and contexts you work in but your views on, for example, the effectiveness of examinations as an assessment mechanism even in a non-pandemic situation. The split in views is evident in the response to our quick poll of members, asking whether they agreed with Ofqual’s proposed approach – of the hundreds of you that responded, 41% agreed and 41% disagreed, with the remaining 18% uncertain. We have never had such a closely-balanced response to a poll before.

To help you to consider all of the issues that may exist – something that members said in our poll would be useful in informing their response – we have drawn together views from our members in that poll or sent via email that you may want to consider when formulating your response to the consultation. Alongside these, you may want to read longer blogs from Michael Chiles, Mick Walker and Shirley Clarke, who argue for three different approaches.

When we asked our members what the biggest challenge or concern for teachers was in the proposed approach, there were some clear themes. These are used as the basis for the areas to consider below.

Clarity over what is being proposed

A number of members highlighted that there is still a lack of clarity over what exactly is being proposed by Ofqual and the DfE in the consultation and what this means in reality for teachers. There is a difficult balance here, as we have long advocated for teachers to be meaningfully consulted before decisions are made, which of course means that full details of plans will not be in place. However, given that the announcement has already been made that exams will be cancelled, it is unsurprising that teachers, pupils and parents are demanding full details of that this means for them. One member suggested that the DfE and Ofqual deciding to scrap exams for a second year was too hasty, and that they “should have had the consultation first, sought ideas and opinions and then based on that, decided whether exams or even partial exams should take place.” There were also a number of concerns about the nature of the ‘mini exams’ and how and whether these differed in any beneficial way from actual exams, or whether they simply increased the burden and accountability on teachers. A final concern in this area was that plans and approaches were likely to constantly continue changing, as was the case last year, reducing teachers’ confidence in what they were being asked to do.

Consistency and fairness

Unsurprisingly, over a third of respondents to our poll mentioned consistency and fairness as the main issue in the proposed approach. This included substantial concerns about consistency at a local and national level in terms of how grades are arrived at, with the moderation and standardisation processes adopted specifically highlighted by a large number of respondents. School leaders Leigh Bellis and Emily Gildea noted with concern that “more is being invested in the appeals process than the marking, moderation and external quality assurance processes… This is clear both in the number of iterations and the time allowed.”

In some ways, concerns about consistency sit in conflict with a desire for ‘fairness’, where fairness is seen as being not disadvantaging pupils because of situations that are out of their control. Concerns about fairness included that access to teaching and learning has been so uneven for different pupils and in different schools, due to (for example) differences in how long schools have been closed for face-to-face teaching, as well as differences in pupils’ access to devices, internet connectivity and more affecting the extent to which they have engaged in online learning. The basis for the position in the consultation that, “We do not believe that teachers should be asked to decide the grade a student might have achieved had the pandemic not occurred. That would put them in an impossible position….” is entirely understandable, but this almost inevitably accepts that some pupils will receive qualifications at a different grade to what they might have done in more normal times; a number of responses noted that this was likely to increase the ‘disadvantage gap’.

Leigh Bellis and Emily Gildea note:

“There is always a significant differential for pupils who are disadvantaged, in care, in temporary housing, or are from non-English-speaking backgrounds. However, schools make significant efforts to mitigate against this. In this situation, the differential has been greatly exacerbated. The proposal, firstly, that assessments could be sat within the home would lead to these pupils being greatly disadvantaged. Further, the gaps in education for these pupils, and those who cannot access online learning easily or routinely, are not sufficiently overcome by these proposals. Ultimately, there is an argument here against the proposal in its entirety. The exacerbation of disadvantage would be better overcome by a different process – one that allowed for teacher judgment to be more holistic.”

Consistency across cohorts was also raised as an issue by a small number of respondents, with some suggesting that grade boundaries needed to be lowered for this year but others raising concerns at this idea.

In her blog for us, Shirley Clarke argues:

“What is a teacher to do… if they know a student had limited access to a laptop, or a peaceful environment, or was self-isolating during the short time schools were open? For all of these reasons, it will be important for grade boundaries to be lowered, in effect allowing teachers to predict what the student would probably have attained had there not been a pandemic.  This was, in the consultation document, not recommended, but if students are to come away with appropriate grades it has to be so.  The likely outcome if grade boundaries are not lowered – whether or not teachers have to set exams or consider ongoing assessment – will be that all students will receive a grade, by my estimation, up to two grades lower than they would have received in normal circumstances. This is due to the lack of face-to-face teaching, coupled with the stress of the pandemic, meaning that students are unlikely to be able to demonstrate what they would have known, understood and been able to accomplish.”

The issue here is not, of course, simply about the grades that pupils receive – there is an issue, too, around the knowledge and skills that pupils have actually had the chance to develop. Pupils do not just need the appropriate grades to progress to their chosen college, career pathway or further or higher education route, but the knowledge and skills that will enable them to succeed in these, which is a huge challenge when large parts of face-to-face teaching have been missed. Some respondents noted that pupil motivation to engage with learning had also dropped since the announcement that exams would be cancelled, leading to further concerns about the learning that would take place.

Externally-set assessments

The value of centrally-set assessments was recognised by some respondents in terms of consistency. In his blog for us, Michael Chiles noted:

“Another key aspect of the proposal is that exam boards would provide papers for teachers to use to form part of their assessment for the proposed grade for their students. I see this as a positive move; there are many reasons why the use of internally-set papers by schools for mock exams or summative assessments are not fit for purpose when it comes to awarding grades for students… The use of exam board papers will provide consistency in how students are assessed nationally.”

However, a number of concerns were also raised, including the different levels and areas of content coverage that would have taken place in different schools (which, of course, was part of the argument for cancelling exams in the first place), and the risk of cheating unless all of these assessments were sat at the same time across the country.

School leaders Leigh Bellis and Emily Gildea argue, as did a number of poll respondents, that what is being proposed is essentially a less effective version of exams:

“As a means of formal assessment, exams offer a degree of parity, reliability and objectivity. This is because: all students sit the same exams in the same conditions (with appropriate access arrangements, externally agreed); there is a high level of secrecy around the contents of the test, so that teachers have to teach the full breadth of the course; marking is external and therefore not subject to bias, and is rigorously moderated.

However, exams also suffer from significant flaws as a model for finding out what students know and can do. They are limited in their scope; they encourage teaching to a test; they advantage students who cope well in exam conditions; they overlook very many important capabilities that children display in other circumstances and that in themselves may be better indicators of knowledge, understanding and ability, and better predictors of future success. Exams are also based on the assumption that all candidates have had the same opportunity to learn the prescribed body of knowledge from which questions will be drawn.

What the government and Ofqual are proposing is, rather than redesigning an assessment system that would overcome the limitations of the exam system, to hold onto the concept of exams but without the critical elements that exams have to recommend them. Consequently, we are left with the worst of all possible worlds – a system that will be deeply unfair, insufficiently moderated, and giving no reliable indication of students’ knowledge base or capability.”

In his blog for us, Mick Walker proposes a way that externally-produced tests could be used differently:

“I am a supporter of using tests and questions/items produced by awarding bodies because they are of a high quality. I proposed in January that a bank of tests should be made available to centres along with mark schemes, support materials and any available performance data such as item analysis. Such provision would give centres an indication of relative performance. However, and of real importance, the tests should be used at the discretion of centres and certainly not weighted above, or necessarily below, other forms of assessment. Nor should they be used to generate data for any purpose other than informing the judgments made by teachers. In promoting tests, I was at pains to stress that their use and status should be clearly communicated otherwise it would appear as exams through the back door.”

Accurately assessing pupils

Over 10% of responses to our poll noted that the biggest issue would be accurately assessing pupils, given very limited data in some cases, given how little pupils had been in class this year. In particular, this would be an issue for those who had poor attendance in online learning. The issue of knowing how independently work produced at home had been completed was also raised.

Inez Randolph, Head of Admissions at Ghana International School, highlighted some of the issues here as well as solutions drawn from other systems:

“I think that using ‘the standard at which the student is performing’ only to award grades might be slightly erroneous.  Are we talking about ‘performing’ in class or online?  How can we authenticate what the students produce (written work)?  In the French system, 50% of the grades are based on oral assessments and 50% on written exams.  What stops us (British curriculum schools of which mine is one of them) from also trying that out? For example, setting oral exams one-on-one – via Google Meet, Zoom, or any other means of video conferencing, and test the students individually.”

Some teachers noted that some subjects would have greater difficulties than others in providing an accurate assessment in the current context, for example practical subjects. A number of responses were also particularly concerned with providing evidence to justify their assessment.

The accuracy of teacher assessment in general was also raised as a concern; a number of respondents referenced the research that suggests teachers can be unconsciously biased against certain groups of students, whilst others raised concerns that teachers would be inclined to inflate grades. This issue also appeared during last summer’s debacle, with the idea that teachers and schools artificially inflate grades being used as an argument against teacher assessment; however, as Sam Freedman argued on Twitter at the time, any difference between teachers’ exam predictions and actual results is not teachers exaggerating pupils’ capabilities but the fact that predictions can’t take into account, for example, a pupil missing out a question accidentally or a particularly challenging question.

Time and workload

Concerns about lack of time was the second most common response (behind consistency and fairness). Understandably, respondents were concerned about the workload implications of teachers and school leaders having to carry out and manage complex assessment processes on top of all the current pressures. Many noted that there seemed to be an expectation that teachers would mark externally-set assessments, in essence doing marking that would usually be done by paid exam markers.

School leaders Leigh Bellis and Emily Gildea noted:

“The impact on school staff is huge. The time consideration for marking and moderation is substantial – and all other normal school activities would be expected to continue alongside. It would be reasonable to expect that exam boards pay teachers for their time marking assessments, in the same way and to the same degree as examiners are. The stress implications of being responsible for students’ grades (and the appeals process as outlined) are significant. In terms of cost, would there be an expectation that we still recruit invigilators? Likewise the hours of exams teams within schools to manage the iterations of submitting, revising and processing appeals.”

Concerns about time and timescales went much further than simply the workload implications, however. Many suggested that this would inevitably affect the time being spent on teaching and learning; respondents also expressed concerns about the time that would be taken to carry out assessments with their classes (in whatever format) on their teaching time with those groups, especially given how much teaching time has already been affected. A number of people also mentioned wanting the assessment to happen as late as possible to enable pupils to have done as much learning as possible; there was concern that assessments were proposed to take place earlier than necessary in order to provide a long time for the appeals process.

Blame, accountability and trust

A final concern that was reported by a large number of respondents was that of the pressures and expectations that were being placed on teachers by expecting them to make these judgments on pupils’ grades in such a complex situation. As Alison Peacock wrote in Schools Week, there is a real risk of teachers being used as scapegoats. A number of respondents expressed concerns about being pressured by pupils or parents to increase grades. The responsibility for managing appeals is also a huge concern.

While it is crucial that we trust teachers and their expertise, we must also be cautious not to enable still further scope-creep in their roles, and risk fundamentally changing the relationships that exist between teachers, parents and pupils. As Alison Peacock also highlighted in her article, it is important not just that the system that is devised is as fair as possible – but also that it is seen to be such, and this, communication about the system and how it works to pupils and parents will be key.

Wider implications

Whatever the outcome of the Ofqual consultation itself and the final system devised, there are also wider issues, considerations and implications. For example, sixth forms, colleges, universities, employers and more can consider how they can make changes to admissions processes to help reduce the impact of any pupils who do not achieve the grade they might have hoped and expected to had the pandemic not happened. Of course, the point that this is not just about grades – it is also about knowledge – also applies here. Clive Taylor, Senior School Improvement Adviser in Stockport, suggests:

Universities need to step up. It is surely not beyond their resource to devise a series of course-by-course bridging units to help the new undergraduates ‘feel their way’ into the degree course of their choice. These will be shared with students on acceptance, be completed over the summer and form a key part of the induction process. This should also be the case for students moving to sixth form/FE.”

And as Michael Chiles reminds us in his blog for us, we also need to look to the future. He argues:

“Beyond summer 2021, reinstating our ‘normal’ exam process is crucial to ensure a fair system for all. Despite all the reservations about the limitations of our examination process, the lack of alternative options provides greater uncertainties and will only lead to perpetuating the disadvantage gap.” 

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