Many things will puzzle educational historians when they look back on 2021 with the considerable benefit of hindsight. High on the list will be why there was no “plan B” for alternative forms of assessment ready to go on the 4 January when the Prime Minister cancelled GCSE and A-level exams.
Quite how the Covid risk to summer 2021 public exams was either missed or downplayed to such an extent and that a “centre ready” plan B was not thought necessary is hard to fathom. Perhaps the various U-turns that characterised public exams in 2020 had so traumatised ministers that they buried their heads in the Westminster sand and hoped the problem would go away?
Whatever the reason, schools and colleges had to wait until the end of March for confirmed details of the replacement assessment process with staff having to give up their Easter breaks to make sense of the guidance. Public exams exist because they are the least worst way of assessing pupils in a consistent and reasonably fair way. Any alternative to public exams is going to be less good, and especially so if it is introduced in haste, during a pandemic, and against a very varied teaching and learning backdrop where some candidates and centres have seen huge educational disruption because of Covid, and others less.
“Public exams exist because they are the least worst way of assessing pupils in a consistent and reasonably fair way. Any alternative to public exams is going to be less good.”
Ofqual and the exam boards have been given mission impossible, and schools and colleges have the unenviable task of implementing imperfect guidance at short notice and in difficult circumstances. Schools and colleges will do the best they can because they care about their students and want them to progress with secure and fair grades, but it won’t be easy to achieve in the limited time between now and the 18 June.
The ratio of Ofqual and exam board “planning” to centre “doing” time seems unfairly skewed against centres. Throw in the added challenges of Covid learning losses in non-public exam year groups, post lockdown pastoral problems, Covid testing, self-isolating staff and the important issues raised by “Everyone’s Invited”, and school staff have lots to contend with.
Exam Boards just do public exams but schools have a much broader remit which isn’t obviously recognised in the Ofqual timelines and processes. Whilst the Ofqual guidance is not prescriptive it does funnel schools and colleges in a particular direction, and perhaps unsurprisingly that direction is from cancelled public exams to summer term “assessments”. The emphasis in the Ofqual guidance that evidence produced under controlled conditions, using exam board materials, completed at the end of the course and marked in a standardised and moderated manner to an exam board mark scheme should be given more weight makes this inevitable.
“Exam Boards just do public exams but schools have a much broader remit which isn’t obviously recognised in the Ofqual timelines and processes.”
It is perhaps unfortunate that we can’t be more honest with candidates about this – “for if it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck then it probably is a duck”. The assessments this term have many exam-like qualities. But in drifting back towards using exams as a major source of evidence for 2021 grading, there is a risk that we will just end up doing exams less well. The exams this year would not pass the “unseen test”, as well motivated and industrious students are able to scour the internet for past papers, mark schemes, and exemplar exam materials and work out what they are likely to be asked.
Question spotting in 2021 is considerably easier than prior years. Whilst marking may be standardised and moderated within centres, the ability to address inter centre differences will be limited because exam boards will not sample evidence on the scale required for a robust national standardisation and moderation process. In any case, as there is no single national standard for acceptable evidence, national standardisation is impossible as with a multiplicity of evidence produced in differing circumstances. Like is not being compared with like.
“In drifting back towards using exams as a major source of evidence for 2021 grading, there is a risk that we will just end up doing exams less well.”
2021 grading will be very different to normal exam years as evidence is graded within individual centres according to grade criteria without reference to a national mark distribution. There are in effect no numerical grade boundaries in 2021 but instead a more subjective grading standard – if it looks like an A, reads like an A, and has A like features then it probably is an A.
But such subjective grading will be less precise than numerical grade boundaries. 2021 grades will be higher than the 2017, 2018, 2019 average we are asked to compare them against. This is inevitable as both the assessment and grading processes used to determine grades in 2021 are very different to 2017-2019. Then, exam papers were genuinely unseen, marking was standardised across centres and not just within them, and grades were determined by an objective numerical distribution rather than a subjective standard.
“If 2021 grades join 2020 grades as part of an inflated pandemic cohort does it really matter?
In addition, as Ofqual recognises, there is likely to be a “benefit of the doubt” effect in 2021 as teachers, where reasonable professional judgement allows, grade with a little generosity to compensate for all the pupils have been through. But if 2021 grades join 2020 grades as part of an inflated pandemic cohort does it really matter? Probably not if it allows students who have already missed out on so much because of Covid, to successfully progress to the next stage in their education, and lives.
Meanwhile Ofqual needs to begin planning now for 2022 public exams, recognising that even if the pandemic ends this calendar year, students sitting exams next academic year will have experienced significant learning losses for which assessment mitigations are required. Centres, teachers and students deserve as much notice of future changes as possible, so that the stresses of 2021 are not repeated.