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Sun, 27 September 2020

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Hardworking pupils deserve better than this 'computer says no' approach to standardisation 

Hardworking pupils deserve better than this 'computer says no' approach to standardisation 

We heard concerns that teachers are more likely to underestimate high-attaining disadvantaged pupils compared to those from more affluent backgrounds, writes Robert Halfon MP. | PA Images

4 min read

All young people should get the grades they have worked so hard for. But the current system for awarding and moderating results risks discriminating against young people from disadvantaged backgrounds – and could result in a huge social injustice

Ever since Gavin Williamson announced the cancellation of exams in March, scrutinising this year’s alternative arrangements for awarding grades has been a key priority for the cross-party Education Committee.

In our report, “Getting the grades they've earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and 'calculated' grades”, we identified significant concerns about the fairness, transparency and accessibility of this year’s arrangements.

We highlighted that the system for awarding and moderating grades is at risk of inaccuracy and bias against young people from disadvantaged backgrounds.

For cancelled exams, including AS, A levels and GCSEs, and certain vocational and technical qualifications, Ofqual instructed teachers to make a judgement of the grade their pupils would have been likely to be awarded.

Teachers were also asked to provide a rank order of pupils within each grade, based on how confident they were that that pupil would have received that grade in an exam.

To ensure that grading is fair nationally, exam boards have standardised the grades using a model devised by Ofqual, based on evidence including historical exam results for each school, and the expected national grade distribution.

After this standardisation model is applied, a pupil’s final grade could be adjusted to be lower, or higher, than the grade submitted by their teachers.

Ofqual has reported that if grades were not standardised this year, we would see results that were on average 12 percentage points better than in 2019 at A level and 9 percentage points at GCSE.

The threshold of bias and discrimination set out by Ofqual will be incredibly hard for individual students to prove.

We heard evidence on the potential unconscious bias to affect calculated grades. We also heard concerns that teachers are more likely to underestimate high-attaining disadvantaged pupils compared to those from more affluent backgrounds.

It is reassuring that Ofqual’s preliminary analysis suggests no widening of attainment gaps.

We called on Ofqual to publish comprehensive evaluation data on attainment, and we will be closely scrutinising their evaluation data when it is published in the Autumn.

We heard concerns that the use of historic performance data in standardisation could penalise ‘atypical’ students such as high achievers in historically low-performing schools.

For example, an outstanding pupil predicted 3 A*s by their teachers might have their results downgraded by standardisation because previous cohorts in that school had never received results higher than a C grade.

This ‘computer says no’ approach to standardisation means that not all pupils will get the grades they deserve.

Our report concluded that this year’s narrow appeals process is a process geared towards the well-heeled and sharp-elbowed.

Unlike in a normal exam year, pupils have limited avenues for making an appeal.

Our report concluded that this year’s narrow appeals process is a process geared towards the well-heeled and sharp-elbowed. We are pleased that Ofqual has taken on board our recommendation about providing a helpline for students, and providing proper training for those taking the calls. However, this does not go far enough to level the playing field.

The threshold of bias and discrimination set out by Ofqual will be incredibly hard for individual students to prove.

This could result in huge social injustice, as affluent families are more likely to have the tools to navigate the appeals system successfully, and are more likely to be able to draw on resources such as lobbying their MP or even engaging lawyers.

Last week Ofqual slightly widened the appeals criteria, confirming that schools can appeal against their results “if they can evidence grades are lower than expected because previous cohorts are not sufficiently representative of this year’s students”.

This could be a key route of redress for schools on an upward trajectory who believe their results had been unfairly pulled down by the use of historic data.

The Education Committee will be paying close attention to results day, and we hope that all young people will get the grades they have worked so hard for. But with just one-quarter of school staff believing that all students will get 'fair deal' from 2020 results, there are clear concerns.

Robert Halfon is the Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the education committee. 

The education committee report, “Getting the grades they've earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and 'calculated' grades” can be read here. The conclusions and recommendations can be read here. Read more about our inquiry into the impact of Covid-19 on education and Children’s Services here.

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