The other day, a friend was telling me about his daughter’s recent briefing session for prospective students at the University of Birmingham School of Dentistry.
Apparently, she was informed that their computer system will automatically reject all applications that do not have at least A-level grade A in biology, chemistry, and one other subject, as well as GCSEs of at least grade 8 in biology and chemistry, and grade 7 in maths and English language or literature.
No-one will be surprised by that. We all know that dentistry is highly competitive, and there are many university courses that require AAA, if not A*A*A*.
I wonder, though, if Birmingham’s computer is aware of the “news story” posted on Ofqual’s website on 11th August 2019 which includes the words “…more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student’s performance and they would both be a sound estimate of that student’s ability …”.
“Why do universities use these strict rules when the regulator is telling us all that a grade B might be an A, and an A a B?”
Yes, Ofqual, the regulator of all those A-Levels and GCSEs, is saying “more than one grade could well be a legitimate reflection of a student’s performance”. Which is worth thinking about. And it raises some powerful questions. Like “What other grades might also be a legitimate reflection of my performance?”. And “I have just been denied a place to read dentistry because my A level Chemistry grade was a B. Is an alternative legitimate reflection an A, and should I claim my place?”
That statement was made by Ofqual in August 2019. A year later, on 2nd September 2020, its key message was confirmed at a hearing of the Education Select Committee, convened to get the bottom of the “mutant algorithm” fiasco, when Ofqual’s then-Chief Regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, stated that “real” exam grades “are reliable to one grade either way”.
Why, then, do universities use rules such as “unless your grade is an A or higher, the computer system will automatically reject you” when the regulator is telling us all, and has been telling us for years, that a grade B might be an A, and an A a B?
For this is not merely an injustice, but potentially a tragedy, both ways: if a student who is awarded a B but who merited an A is rejected, perhaps that life chance is lost for ever; a student awarded an A, and so admitted, but whose true level of attainment is a B, not only denies a more qualified student a place, but may struggle, lose confidence, and suffer mental anguish.
“This is not merely an injustice, but potentially a tragedy.”
Perhaps the universities do know about this, but just don’t care. Which is a pity, for the students care very much. But students don’t have the collective power of universities to put pressure on Ofqual to fix this.
Alternatively, perhaps the universities don’t know – even though this information has been in the public domain since, in fact, November 2018, when Ofqual published the results of their research on which these statements are based. And a lot else too. Such as the facts that, on average, one “real” exam grade in every 4 is wrong, with variations by subject (nearly half of all history grades, for example, are wrong), and by mark (for all subjects, at all levels, about 50 per cent of scripts marked close to a grade boundary end up with the wrong grade – it would be just as fair to toss a coin).
This, of course, affects teachers – you – too. You spend your entire life dedicated to doing the best you possibly can for all your students, of all abilities. Only for “the system” to “award” grades that are “reliable to one grade either way”. But perhaps you think, that, in the great scale of things, it doesn’t matter. And even if it might matter, perhaps you don’t care enough to do anything about it.
But if you do think it matters, and if you do care, what are you going to do?
Dennis Sherwood’s latest book, Missing the Mark: Why so many school exam grades are wrong, and how to get results we can trust, will be published on 4th August by Canbury Press.