In November 2021, the DfE announced its intention to give pupils advance notice of the topics they should revise for in their exams in 2022. Adam Caller, educational consultant and founder of Tutors International and Philip Mitchell, a long-standing and successful tutor, question if there is a way to stabilise and future-proof grade boundaries in the UK's public exams
This summer, for the first time since 2019, pupils will once again sit GCSE, AS and A-level exams in England. The assessment watchdog, Ofqual, has recently published a package of support that it claims: “…is intended to make sure that we are being as fair as possible to students given the disruption they have experienced, and many continue to face, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Part of the changes includes more generous grading this year to provide a safety net for students who may have been impacted by the pandemic”.
Ofqual plans to provide extra help to students by giving them advance notice of some of the question topics in their exams. However, this announcement has proven to be unacceptable to those learning that this notice will only be given for higher tariff questions which earn the most marks. Critics of the policy maintain that this will disadvantage those students already struggling at the lower end of the educational spectrum who will be “doubly disadvantaged” as a result of these new adaptations.
This is further complicated by a report published by the Education Policy Institute on 10th February 2022, showing that disadvantaged students in 16-19 education were on average the equivalent of 3.1 A-level grades behind their more affluent peers across the three best qualifications in 2020, compared to 2.9 grades in 2019.
Students Express Concern
In yet a further development today, an article published by inews, reveals how some students feel that some exam boards are offering more help to candidates than others, providing more advance notice on which topics they may be tested on. In a recent comment, Tom Middlehurst curriculum, assessment and inspection specialist at ASC tweeted: “…Hearing reports of serious differences between subjects and between the approaches of exam boards. Even to the point where some teachers believe their students would be SIGNIFICANTLY advantaged if they swapped boards even at this late stage”.
Comments from Educational Expert
Philip Mitchell, an educator for many decades, is one of Tutors International’s most successful private tutors, having taught students based in the USA, Italy, Jordan and London. “I have strong views on the new adaptations”, Mitchell declares. “The last two academic years have been exceptional, so some making do and mending is almost inevitable. The important thing is that every student should be treated the same, but therein lies the nub of the problem - how do you treat someone studying French the same way as someone taking Maths? Going forward, I would say that what is needed is an agreed, objective, future-proof way of deciding grade boundaries right across the curriculum to restore stability and credibility”.
Finding A Better Solution
Cohorts in most public exam subjects are large enough, Mitchell asserts, therefore it would be a reasonable assumption that they are of comparable potential and talent year after year. Mitchell points to research done by the education department at Stanford University which has identified the so-called ‘Logit-Normal distribution’ as being an effective, flexible way of modelling test scores properly. Mitchell goes on to elaborate: “The key notion is that grade boundaries would be decided by agreeing definite percentiles: for example, the top 10% get an A, the next 19% a B, the next 37% a C, the next 19% a D, the next 10% an E, the remaining 5%, F or below, delivering a "pass" rate of 95%. This would take complete account of some papers being easier or harder year by year, also of the fact that French exams are so different from Maths exams”.
It is Mitchell’s view that this can, and should, be done before the papers are marked and before the scores are in, and that this method could remain stable year after year. “Clearly there would need to be significant, probably lengthy and likely acrimonious, consultation ahead of time involving government, exam boards, teaching unions, university admissions tutors, and maybe even employers' representatives; but the result should deliver something that needs no tinkering with year after year and does away with the dreaded grade inflation and political intervention”.
Adam Caller is an independent educational consultant and former teacher. He founded Tutors International in 1999 – an elite residential tutoring company, dedicated to providing bespoke matches for students and tutors and the delivery of an unrivalled quality of teaching. Caller believes that grade inflation will pose a problem for universities and students: “Awarding inflated grades may cause problems both in the short and long-term. Top universities have certain standards to maintain, so if students are not meeting the educational standards that are required, we can expect to see a higher drop-out rate. At the same time, a student anticipating grade inflation and given support materials in this year’s exams may be less inclined to study as hard as they might have and so fail to achieve their potential”.
Grades to Return to Pre-Covid Levels Over Next Two Years
Dr Jo Saxton, Chief regulator of Ofqual says it is their intention to return to a pre-pandemic grade profile. However, she feels that it would be unfair on 2022 students, given the disruption they have experienced, for this to happen in one go: “As we return to summer exams, in 2022 exam boards will set the grade boundaries based on a profile that reflects a mid-point between 2021 and pre-pandemic grading. This will provide a safety net for students, to reflect the disruption this cohort have experienced already in their course and recognising the fact that, because of the pandemic, most A-level students won't have taken public exams before.”