2020 UK GCSE and A-Level grading controversy

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Due to the COVID-19 pandemic in the United Kingdom, all secondary education examinations due to be held in 2020 were cancelled. As a result, an alternative method had to be designed and implemented at short notice to determine the qualification grades to be given to students for that year. A grades standardisation algorithm was produced in June 2020 by the regulator Ofqual in England, Qualifications Wales in Wales, Scottish Qualifications Authority in Scotland, and CCEA in Northern Ireland. The algorithm was designed to combat grade inflation, and was to be used to moderate the existing but unpublished teacher-predicted grades for A Level and GCSE students. After the A Level grades were issued, and after criticism, Ofqual, with the support of HM Government, withdrew these grades. It issued all students the Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs), which had been produced by teachers as part of the process. The same ruling was applied to the awarding of GCSE grades, just a few days before they were issued: CAG-based grades were the ones released on results day.

Contents

A similar controversy erupted in Scotland, after the Scottish Qualifications Authority marked down as many as 75,000 predicted grades to "maintain credibility", and later agreed to upgrade the results and issue new exam certificates. The Scottish Government apologised for the controversy, with Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland saying of the situation that the Scottish Government "did not get it right".

Background

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, students sit General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and A Level exams, typically at ages 16 and 18 respectively. These exams are also administered by Cambridge Assessment International Education for students in countries such as Hong Kong, India and Singapore.

On 18 March 2020, the government decided to cancel all examinations in England due to the COVID-19 pandemic, although the regulator, Ofqual, had advised that holding exams in a socially distanced manner was the best option. [1] The same cancellation decision was taken by the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved governments. [2] [3] The governments announced that, in their place, grades were to be based on teacher predictions which would be moderated to prevent grade inflation. [4] Overseas exams provided by CIE were cancelled on 23 March 2020, and grades were issued on the same basis as in England. [5] [6]

Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson stated that his "priority now is to ensure no young person faces a barrier when it comes to moving on to the next stage of their lives – whether that’s further or higher education, an apprenticeship or a job" and that he had "asked exam boards to work closely with the teachers who know their pupils best to ensure their hard work and dedication is rewarded and fairly recognised." [4] Students unhappy with their calculated grades would be able to appeal through their school, or sit exams in the autumn. [7]

For homeschooled students, or those retaking exams, Ofqual stated they may not receive a grade, and would have to sit exams in 2021 because of a "lack of any credible alternatives identified". [8] [9] [10] It was estimated that over 20,000 students would be affected, and would be unable to move on to college or university. [11] [12]

Standardisation algorithm

A grades standardisation algorithm was produced by Ofqual, the regulator of qualifications, exams and tests in England. It was designed to combat grade inflation, and was to be used to standardise or moderate the teacher-predicted grades for A Level and GCSE qualifications. [13]

A Level results

The A Level grades were announced in England, Wales and Northern Ireland on 13 August 2020. Nearly 36% were one grade lower than teachers' predictions and 3% were down two grades. [14] [15] By comparison, 79% of university entrants in 2019 did not achieve their predicted grades. [15]

Reaction

The release of results resulted in a public outcry. Particular criticism was made of the disparate effect the grading algorithm had in downgrading the results of those who attended state schools, and upgrading the results of pupils at privately funded independent schools and thus disadvantaging pupils of a lower socio-economic background, in part due to the algorithm's behaviour around small cohort sizes. [16] [17]

Students and teachers felt deprived and upset following the controversial algorithm calculation and protested against it, with many demanding Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government take immediate action. [18] In response to the public outcry, on 15 August, Gavin Williamson said that the grading system is here to stay, and there will be "no U-turn, no change". Williamson criticised Scottish ministers for their u-turn the week prior, stating that awarding unmoderated grades would be "unwise", cause "rampant grade inflation". Instead, he suggested that schools appeal swiftly on behalf of affected students, to ensure any errors could be amended. [19] [20] Boris Johnson stated that the results are "robust and dependable". [21]

Legal action, in the form of judicial review, was initiated by multiple students and legal advocacy organisations such as the Good Law Project. [22] [23]

A Level results revised

On 17 August, Ofqual and Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson agreed that grades would be reissued using unmoderated teacher predictions. [24] [25] As a result, there was an annual increase by more than 10 percentage points in the number of top grades awarded (from 25.2% to an estimated 37.7%), [26] the biggest increase for at least 20 years. [27]

GCSE results

On 20 August 2020 the GCSE results were released. [28] After the problems arising from the use of the grade algorithm for A Levels, it was decided that GCSE grades awarded to each student would be the higher of the teacher predicted result or algorithm standardised result for each subject they took. [28]

Vocational and technical qualifications (BTEC) results

A further 200,000 students who had taken the level one and two vocational qualifications were told on 19 August 2020, hours before results day, that they would not receive them on time. About 250,000 level-three grades, which had already been awarded, were also reassessed; these vocational equivalents to A Levels had been given a result at the same time as the A Levels were released. The examining board, Pearson Edexcel, withdrew them when the controversy broke, and has re-marked them upwards and is issuing a revised certificate, on a rolling basis, in the week beginning 24 August. [29]

Aftermath

Resignations in the aftermath of the controversy
Sally Collier.jpg
Sally Collier, CEO and Chief Regulator of Ofqual

On 25 August 2020, Sally Collier resigned from the position of chief regulator of Ofqual following the grading controversy. [30] [31] Three days later, Permanent Secretary Jonathan Slater, the most senior civil servant at the Department for Education (DfE), stood down. [32] Subsequently, the government was accused of scapegoating civil servants and avoiding accountability. [33] [34] [35]

On 1 September, the question of blame was reopened by The Guardian. In a report OCR, one of the exam boards, told Williamson that the algorithm was producing some rogue results. But Williamson and the DfE were told by Ofqual that the appeals procedure would correct the few rogue results. OCR informed them that this was more than a few results and that patterns could be observed, such as students with better results than a low-performing group the year before. [36]

On 2 September, Ofqual's chair Roger Taylor appeared before the Education Select Committee of the House of Commons during their inquiry into the impact of COVID-19 on education and children's services. [37] He apologised to students, parents and teachers, [1] and stated that the Secretary of State made the decisions to cancel examinations and to abruptly withdraw the procedure to challenge calculated A-level grades. [38]

Scottish Highers

On 4 August 2020, secondary school students in Scotland received their Higher grades. Having also been unable to take their exams because of the pandemic, their grades were estimated by teachers, but the body awarding the qualifications was reported to have downgraded around a quarter of the marks awarded in order to "maintain credibility". [39] Following criticism of the system from teachers and students, on 10 August, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon apologised for the controversy, saying the Scottish Government "did not get it right". [40] The following day, on 11 August, the Scottish Government agreed to upgrade thousands of exam results, and accept teachers' estimates of pupils' results. [41] On 18 August, the Scottish Qualifications Authority announced that 75,000 new exam certificates would be issued. [42]

See also

Related Research Articles

General Certificate of Secondary Education British public examinations, generally taken aged 16

The General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) is an academic qualification in a particular subject, taken in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. State schools in Scotland use the Scottish Qualifications Certificate instead. Private schools in Scotland may choose to use an alternative qualification.

Education in the United Kingdom is a devolved matter with each of the countries of the United Kingdom having separate systems under separate governments: the UK Government is responsible for England; whilst the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive are responsible for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, respectively.

Scottish Qualifications Authority

The Scottish Qualifications Authority is the executive non-departmental public body of the Scottish Government responsible for accrediting educational awards. It is partly funded by the Education and Lifelong Learning Directorate of the Scottish Government, and employs approximately 750 staff based in Glasgow and Dalkeith.

Standard Grades were Scotland's educational qualifications for students aged around 14 to 16 years. Introduced in 1986, the Grades were replaced in 2013 with the Scottish Qualifications Authority's National exams in a major shake-up of Scotland's education system as part of the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework overhaul.

Edexcel British multinational education and examination body owned by Pearson

Edexcel is a British multinational education and examination body formed in 1996 and wholly owned by Pearson plc since 2005. It is the only privately owned examination board in the United Kingdom. Its name is a portmanteau term combining the words education and excellence.

Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations

OCR is an examination board that sets examinations and awards qualifications. It is one of England, Wales and Northern Ireland's five main examination boards.

WJEC (exam board)

WJEC, formally the Welsh Joint Education Committee, is an examination board providing examinations, professional development and educational resources to schools and colleges in Wales, England and Northern Ireland under its own name and the Eduqas brand.

International General Certificate of Secondary Education

The International General Certificate of Secondary Education (IGCSE) is an English language based examination similar to GCSE and is recognized in the United Kingdom as being equivalent to the GCSE for the purposes of recognizing prior attainment. It was developed by University of Cambridge International Examinations. The examination boards Edexcel and OxfordAQA also offer their own versions of International GCSEs. Students normally begin studying the syllabus at the beginning of Year 10 and take the test at the end of Year 11. However, in some international schools, students can begin studying the syllabus at the beginning of Year 9 and take the test at the end of Year 10.

Grade inflation is the awarding of higher grades than students deserve, which yields a higher average grade given to students.

A-Level British educational certification

The A Level is a subject-based qualification conferred as part of the General Certificate of Education, as well as a school leaving qualification offered by the educational bodies in the United Kingdom and the educational authorities of British Crown dependencies to students completing secondary or pre-university education. They were introduced in England and Wales in 1951 to replace the Higher School Certificate.

Ofqual

The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) is a non-ministerial government department that regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England. Colloquially and publicly, Ofqual is often referred to as the exam "watchdog".

The General Certificate of Education (GCE) Advanced Level, or A Level, is a main school leaving qualification in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It is available as an alternative qualification in other countries.

An Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is a qualification taken by some students in England and Wales, which is equivalent to 50% of an A level. They are part of level three of the National Qualifications Framework. It is currently graded A*-E.

Gavin Williamson British Conservative politician, former UK Education Secretary

Gavin Alexander Williamson is a British politician who has served as Member of Parliament (MP) for South Staffordshire since 2010. A member of the Conservative Party, Williamson previously served in Theresa May's Cabinet as Secretary of State for Defence from 2017 to 2019, and as Secretary of State for Education under Boris Johnson from 2019 to 2021.

In England, the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) is a school performance indicator linked to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) results. It measures students' attainment by calculating an average score from specified subject grades. The EBacc includes subjects which are considered "essential to many degrees and open up lots of doors".

The national qualification frameworks in the United Kingdom are qualifications frameworks that define and link the levels and credit values of different qualifications.

In March 2020, schools, nurseries and colleges in the United Kingdom were shut down in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. By 20 March, all schools in the UK had closed for all in-person teaching, except for children of key workers and children considered vulnerable. With children at home, teaching took place online. The emergence of a new variant of COVID-19 in December 2020 led to cancellation of face-to-face teaching across England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales the following month.

Kathleen Tattersall English educationist

Kathleen Tattersall was a British educationalist, specialising in examination administration. She was the leader of five examination boards in the United Kingdom before becoming the first head of exams regulator Ofqual.

In 2020, Ofqual, the regulator of qualifications, exams and tests in England, produced a grades standardisation algorithm to combat grade inflation and moderate the teacher-predicted grades for A level and GCSE qualifications in that year, after examinations were cancelled as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sally Collier British civil servant and former exam regulator of Ofqual

Sally Collier is a British civil servant and former head of the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual). She also involved in negotiating changes to European Union rules governing public procurement.

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