Government’s teacher assessment plan risks “extremely high grade inflation”, warn experts

Teachers to determine pupil grades this year, with results days brought forward to the week of 9 August to allow for appeals

The Department for Education (DfE) has today (Thursday, 25 February) confirmed that this year’s A-level, VTQ (including BTEC) and GCSE grades will be based on teacher assessments.

The proposals have been backed by responses to the DfE and Ofqual’s largest ever consultation, which received over 100,000 responses – 52% of them from pupils.

How will teachers assess grades?

Teachers will assess pupils only on what they have been taught, education secretary Gavin Williamson has announced today.

To do so, they will be able to draw on “a range of evidence”, including mock exams, coursework, or “other work completed as part of a pupil’s course, such as essays or in-class tests”. No algorithm will be used.

In addition, exam boards will provide detailed guidance to teachers before the end of the spring term which, says the DfE, “will be designed to minimise any additional burden this year’s awarding process may place in [sic] teachers and staff.” Exam boards will also provide “optional questions” that teachers may use to support them in determining grades.

The aim is to make it no harder overall for this year’s students to receive a particular grade than students in other years – Simon Lebus, Ofqual

Teachers will submit grades to exam boards by 18 June.

There will be no blanket, external moderation of grades. Educational settings will conduct their own checks for fairness – “such as checking consistency of judgements across teachers and that the correct processes were followed”. Exam boards will conduct spot checks, using random sampling and “more targeted scrutiny where they identify cause for concern”.

Every student will have the right to appeal their grade.

When will results be published?

Results will be released in the week commencing 9 August – moved forward from the week of the 23 August – in order to allow time for appeals. This is the same day that universities are provided with results for admissions purposes. It was confirmed this morning (Thursday 25 February) that Wales would follow the same rules and timetable as England.

Vocational and technical qualifications, and private candidates

Students studying vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) will also receive teacher-assessed grades rather than sitting exams. However, they will be required to undertake exams and practical assessments where they are required “to demonstrate the necessary professional standard in an occupation”.

Private candidates have been promised a “clear and accessible route” to receiving a grade, with Ofqual, exam boards and exam centres working together to ensure this.

Exams and assessments should continue “in line with public health measures” for smaller qualifications such as Functional Skills Qualifications and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), with alternative arrangements available for those who cannot access them.

‘The fairest possible system’

“Young people have shown incredible resilience over the last year, continuing with their learning amidst unprecedented challenges while the country battles with this pandemic. Those efforts deserve to be fairly rewarded,” said education secretary Gavin Williamson.

“That’s why we are providing the fairest possible system for those pupils, asking those who know them best – their teachers – to determine their grades, with our sole aim to make sure all young people can progress to the next stage of their education or career.

“I also recognise many students need their vocational and technical qualifications to enter into work. Exams and practical assessments in these courses are essential for the students to progress to the next stage, and so it’s right that these continue.”

Ofqual’s interim chief regulator Simon Lebus said: “We know how difficult this past year has been for many students, parents, schools and colleges. In normal years, we rely on exams to support students’ progression.

“This year it is teachers’ judgement that will be used to assess what has been learned and determine student grades. Assessment cannot itself serve as an instrument to recover lost learning and compensate for the different experiences students will have had in different parts of the country, and the arrangements being put in place will therefore only take into account what students have been taught, not what they have missed. The aim is to make it no harder overall for this year’s students to receive a particular grade than students in other years.

“I am confident that these arrangements will allow all parts of the education and training sector to work together collectively to make sure students’ grades reflect what they have achieved and provide a sound basis to enable them to make good decisions about their future.”

“There will also be a clear and accessible route for private candidates to work with a centre to receive a grade this year, at the same time as other candidates. Exam boards will provide centres with clear guidance on the evidence they can use to assess a private candidate. A list of available centres will be published shortly and, we are working with the sector to ensure there are sufficient centres available and at a similar cost to a normal year.”

Grade inflation warning

While welcoming the government’s decision to opt for teacher-assessed grades, Education Policy Institute (EPI) chief executive Natalie Perera warned that “significant risks” remain:

“There is still a very high risk that we will see inconsistencies in the grades among different pupils and schools. Without timely and detailed guidance for schools on how this year’s grades should be benchmarked against previous years, and with classroom assessments only being optional, there is a significant risk that schools will take very different approaches to grading.

“This could result in large numbers of pupils appealing their grades this year or extremely high grade inflation, which could be of little value to colleges, universities, employers and young people themselves.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK said admissions teams “will pull out all the stops to make sure that this year’s applicants get the opportunity to fulfil their potential at university”. They reassured applicants universities would “continue to be fair and flexible in their decision making including, as in any year, for those who choose to appeal their results over the summer”.

UUK welcomed the opportunity to “have sight of applicants’ grades before results day”, saying it would minimise stress for applicants.

In response to today’s DfE announcement, Cat Turhan, policy analyst at the Russell Group, said:

“We’re pleased the government has confirmed that this summer’s results day for students will continue to be ‘coupled’ with when universities are informed of results for admissions purposes. This will allow places at university to be confirmed quickly, reducing stress for applicants and pressure on the appeals system.

“The decision to bring results day forward to early August will help universities better support students by giving more time to process results, make decisions and arrange crucial onboarding activities, while still allowing time for appeals. These positive changes will support our universities with robust and fair decision making, and allow them to be as flexible as possible to help ensure students are not disadvantaged by changes to assessments in 2021.”

University Alliance CEO Vanessa Wilson said: “Alliance universities will continue to be flexible and responsive to support learners to progress to further study and succeed once at university. We are pleased that exam results will not be ‘decoupled’ from the usual university admissions cycle, enabling universities to best support students through the confirmation and clearing process. This is particularly important this year when the students who face the biggest barriers accessing higher education are also the most likely to have been personally and financially impacted by the pandemic.

“It is critical that vocational qualifications are released at the same time as A-levels. Many applicants to Alliance universities are studying a mixed portfolio of qualifications, e.g., A-levels and BTECs. Any delay in the publication of results will create inequality and any delay in confirmation will heap more stress and anxiety on applicants.”

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