Whatever has happened to Ofqual? Just eight hours after the exams watchdog posted new online guidance on using mock A-levels grades for those appealing against what are generally seen as unfairly downgraded A-level results, Ofqual replaced it with the terse statement: “Earlier today [Saturday] we published information about mock exam results in appeals. This policy is being reviewed by the Ofqual Board and further information will be published in due course.”
Not only are public schools and other centres with small class sizes benefiting by an average 4.7% increase in A’s and A*s performance as against 2% for comprehensives and the smallest increase of 0.3% for FE and sixth form colleges, but many A* predictions on which medical and other highly sought-after university places depend have been downgraded to Bs. The move has shed the hopes of many bright students destined to do well at less academic schools and colleges ls thanks to an algorithm based largely on their institutions’ 2019 performances and regardless of any improvements made by the institutions since then.
In fact, many institutions are asking how fair is it to allow someone in Scotland to attend medical school based on teacher assessments when a fellow student from England with a similar teacher assessment misses out due to an automatic downgrade?
Overall grades at sixth form colleges 20% down
Today (Monday), the Sixth Form Colleges Association says data based on 65,000 entries across 38 colleges and 41 different A-level subjects shows overall grades are 20% lower than historic performance for similar students in those colleges.
In a phone-round last Thursday to college leaders, the general verdict was a slight overall improvement on last year’s pass rate. City of Bristol principal/CEO Andy Forbes said his college’s pass rate was 2% up on 2019 with a slight improvement in AAB grades. “But over 60% of our submitted calculated grades have been adjusted downwards. We went through the whole process of rigorously calculating grades, applying all sorts of criteria using previous marks, mock exams and even looking at unconscious bias to make sure the marks being given were not affected by underlying psychological favouritism. Seeing so many of our predicted grades downgraded after having gone through that process is frustrating and we feel slightly professionally insulted.
“I agree the government has had to come up with something to replace exams but they are applying it with a blunt instrument - more sensitivity would have been useful.
College improvements not recognised
“What really galls me is that they have almost pegged us back to last year so if you didn’t have a good year in 2019 (we didn’t), and regardless of what you’ve done to improve things (we changed the mix of subjects available and the management team, and brought in new teachers), we are still being judged on last year!
“We can appeal all the results but it’s lengthy, time-consuming and costs money - and we have a whole new cohort of students joining us in the next few weeks.
“So our strategy is only to appeal for students who have been badly affected by a downgrade and missed out on their university choice - eg one student was predicted ABB but downgraded to BCC, which was below what they needed to do law at Cardiff.”
Forbes stressed the current student cohort has had a really bad experience since March. They’ve been unable to say goodbye to friends, have been stuck at home, unable to show their abilities in an exam, not had closure on A-levels and generally been anxious about what university life to expect, jobs market uncertainty and reduced opportunities for internships and gap years.
Rising stress levels all round
He says it just adds to students’ stress at a time when they need to be focusing on the future. They face going back to uni and picking up their study skills after a very long gap. The suggestion of resits at the start of the winter term could mean a year’s delay for many before going to university. “And if we are to use mock exams, tell us in advance so we can set them at a certain standard.
“Let’s support our young people, go with the original teacher assessment grades and accept that in 2020 they will be 5-10% higher than normal. This is an exceptional year, for goodness sake!”
At Weston College, principal/CEO Dr Paul Phillips feels Ofqual has simply interpolated last year’s results and applied them to this year’s estimated grades, which at Weston are slightly up on 2019. “It should have been done on a much later timespan. We’re two-thirds of a grade down on what I would have expected from a particularly strong cohort this year. We had a 99% pass rate and around 50% gained high grades, though my expectation was slightly higher.”
He says using mock grades was an “absolute irrelevance”. As a maths teacher he would always mark mock exams extremely toughly and expect C-graders to get at least an A in the actual exams. But he argues strongly that if estimated grades are being used in Scotland, they need to be used across the UK and particularly in England. By contrast vocational grades had come out much as expected.
Accurate grade profiles reflect students' true abilities
Results indicate that most Weston students have at least achieved the progression they need to actually go to university or into employment. “Our results have gone very well and learners are really pleased but some are asking to go to appeal simply because we have done so well: one student got AAB and yet was predicted 3 A*s but, even though they are going to university, they still want to be upgraded - students feel their grade profile is reflective of their ability. This problem will not go away.”
Phillips says England should either follow Scotland or stand firm. "If interpolation had been used across the UK it would be ok but the fact that the Scottish system has broken ranks is calling into question a whole range of issues. So, for example, while a learner from England predicted with three (teacher assessed) As to study medicine has received three Bs and will currently miss out, someone in Scotland with the same predicted grades will get in on the same course!”
At Havant and South Downs College, principal/CEO Mike Gaston is pleased with their overall pass rate up 1.3% to 97.9% and a 4.9% rise in high grades (A*- B or equivalent) to just over 53%. But he says that nevertheless around 50% of teacher assessed grades have been lowered (though, fortunately, there’s been little change in extended diploma assessments).
‘A very difficult morning’
“We had a very difficult morning on Thursday for a number of high-performing students and we are looking at appeal processes and doing everything we can to support those students. The algorithm used has not helped, particularly at the top end of grades, and we should probably have only gone with centre [teacher] assessed grades only, though they are not perfect.”
Jerry White, deputy principal of City College Norwich, says Thursday’s results were broadly comparable to last year and not out of step with expectations. “But challenges arise when you drill down to individual students and their grades and how disappointed they are. So we’re now focusing on how, regardless of grading, they have still secured progression to their chosen course and university - consoling them, but helping them recognise A-levels are just a gateway to higher study.”
Students wishing to appeal remain anxious, given the continuing lack of guidance on how to appeal following Saturday’s removal of new guidance on use of mock A-level results and that universities are urgently seeking assurance that students can launch an appeal so they can hold places open for them.
Mocks never designed to be used in assessment
Like a number of other colleges, White says City College had used a huge range of sources, including mock A-level results, to build its teacher assessed grades.”The problem is trying to draw mocks out from assessments and stand them on their own, independent of any other validating sources. There’s a massive difference between institutions on how mocks results are measured; they were never intended to stand on their own as a single piece of evidence about student performance. We’ll wait with interest to see how Ofqual defines a valid mock result.”
One final note comes from Nigel Evans, Weymouth College’s principal/CEO, whose small 120-student A-level cohort improved on last year’s results with a 100% pass rate and 41% gaining grades A*-B.
Might there, he asks, be a lack of self-confidence among students entering university who question if they actually deserve their grades - they have just come out, say, with a predicted three Bs but not actually taken the exam. “Normally you’ve learnt it, sat it, and done it a few months ago,” says Evans. “I think this is a cohort that will need a lot of support.”