Recently I have written two blogs (1)  (2) about next stages after COVID-19. Both have considered all kinds of fundamental questions about what our education system might need to look like in the future and how school leaders can harness what has been learnt.  They have been well received and I know are being considered carefully by school leaders.

But there are some really big and uncomfortable questions which school leaders cannot answer on their own and which have to inform future education policy.

This is an attempt to consider one of these in as objective a way as I can. This is not about taking a partisan view. No party has addressed these yet and all are going to need to consider them carefully.

When schools were closed for the majority of pupils one of the greatest challenges facing decision makers in England was the timetable of summative tests and externally administered examinations.  Unlike most other countries which base all judgements about student’s attainment at least up to the age of 16 on teacher assessment we are entirely dependent on externally set and marked examination conducted during a very narrow window of dates.

In contrast to other countries where teacher assessment routinely takes place throughout the year and summative grades could easily be collated and evidenced, a different solution was therefore needed this year in secondary schools in order to enable students to be awarded a grade. I do not envy Ofqual in the decisions they had to make in order to find a workable solution for this year and can understand why the proposed arrangements received little opposition from professional associations who saw them as the ‘least worst’  pragmatic solution.

Some weeks down the line the cracks have begun to show. When teachers attempted to calculate evidence-informed centre-assessed grades there were clear difficulties in some cases. There were even threats of challenges and even legal action from anxious parents and real worries in many schools about whether this system will short change any of their students.

A major challenge arising from this situation is the policy imperative of ensuring that grades are comparable from year to year. The standardisation process is bound to produce some results which do not reflect the judgement of their teachers. Some will argue that this has always happened with exams and indeed that it protects some students from decline.  That is true. However, the difference is that this year’s system explicitly bases results on individual schools’ as well as national patterns of prior performance and does not allow for local improvements.

A well researched FFT report  showed that grades submitted by a large sample of schools to a  statistical moderation exercise ahead of the deadline represented a significant uplift from previous years.  The report is rightly cautious in drawing conclusions that assume these would be the final grades the schools submitted stating that ‘they may have used the reports they were provided with to amend the mix of grades they were proposing’.

It has nevertheless been understandably clear that many teachers have felt seriously conflicted by this process. There are several reasons for this:

  • Some schools which had been underperforming in previous years had strong grounds to expect a significant improvement this year but knew that such predictions would be downgraded. They therefore had to submit lower grades than they knew the students deserved and felt deeply uncomfortable about this.
  • The importance of previous individual schools’ and national patterns of results in the process means that the so called ‘Forgotten Third’ will automatically be perpetuated. Teachers who have made such efforts to address this for those students find themselves deeply discomfited when forced to lock a proportion of their students into that category.
  • Some schools lack the robust internal assessment processes to make predictions backed up by trustworthy evidence.
  • There is evidence that in some cases senior leaders fearful of accountability pressures have expected their teachers to submit unrealistically high grades.

But there is one specific reason that overrides all of these in making this process difficult.

The centre assessed grades are not a professional judgement about what students know and understand. They are a judgement on the grade a student might have achieved. These two things are  very different from one another.    From year to year students whose papers meet the marking criteria identically might not achieve the same grade due to the standardisation process which requires approximately the same proportion of students to achieve each grade unless there have been significant changes in the prior attainment of the cohort.

So, two students’ whose mastery of the subject matter is identical will not necessarily receive the same grade from year to year. Some labelled as failures in one year would not have been in another.  No teacher can second guess this because it is entirely dependent on the comparable outcomes or standardisation processes.  This has been extremely difficult to communicate to parents, employers and, I suspect, some policymakers. The system was introduced to ensure comparability between years across the examination reforms but also reflects a fear in official circles of grade inflation which is not matched by a fear of failure to recognize or indeed identify system-wide improvement.

That might explain why, for several years, there has been widespread denial about this uncomfortable truth.

It is therefore hardly surprising that teachers are have struggled with this process. If, when the results arrive, some of their students have been given a lower grade than the centre assessed grade they will be powerless to address that. In some cases they may well use their own judgement to decide for example whether that student should  be admitted to an advanced course in that subject. That will of course be easier in a school with a sixth form than in an 11-16 institution where decisions on admissions to advanced courses are made elsewhere.  It is very likely that some fundamental questions will be asked when results are published.

The other consequence of this approach is teaching to the test and narrowing of the curriculum.  Though the Chief Inspector has frequently expressed disapproval of this the fact of the matter is that the outcome of a GCSE course is highly dependent on a student’s ability to jump through the hoops of the examination markscheme. For schools the stakes in the accountability system are so high that they cannot  ever afford to take their eyes off grades. The examination becomes the de facto scheme of work. At the time of writing it is reported that one large academy chain is considering narrowing the curriculum in order to prepare students for examinations.

As someone who visits numerous lessons in a range of schools I frequently see reference to meeting one of the examination specification’s assessment objectives as the aim of the lesson. In spite of the cancellation of performance tables and inspection this year this practice remains very evident in many examples of virtual lessons and work set during lockdown.    If that practice happens to coincide with mastery of the subject matter that is an added bonus. The sad reality is that in many cases the examination paper is the learning objective rather than the intrinsic content of the subject matter itself. In no subject is this more evident than in the reformed English GCSE.

If there is one lesson from lockdown that will improve the life chances of our young people if will be to restore the rightful position of professional teacher assessment. Reintroducing some form of controlled assessment to GCSE as some have proposed may be a step on the way but will be a red herring if we cannot move to a situation where summative assessment actually provides a clear picture of what students, know, can do and understand. That kind of information would be very different from an examination grade, much more useful for prospective employers and admissions tutors and therefore a far better preparation for adult life.

In view of the extent to which teaching has been dominated by an exam-based system based entirely on external assessment the scale of the cultural shift cannot be underestimated.  In order to move to a position in which teachers are trusted and empowered to make such professional judgements that culture change will need to embrace parents, the pupils, government and the media as well as the teachers and school leaders themselves. In addition to significant training needs there will be significant ethical responsibilities to which the entire education profession will have to commit.

Other jurisdictions do this. Why can’t we?

3 thoughts on “What’s in a grade? Some uncomfortable truths

  1. Brian: I wholeheartedly agree. As a former Principal Examiner on English Language Foundation tier I would welcome the chance to open a discussion with you on what the future of English assessment could look like for the third that we, as English teachers and custodians of Foundation candidates, never forgot.

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