Measures for 2020-21 A levels

This year’s A level cohort has missed out on an awful lot of learning. So we need a robust way of reflecting what they have achieved under difficult circumstances, and supporting a transition to the next stage of education or work fairly.

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

In 2020, the use of Centre Assessed Grades, and the consequent retreat from the year on year proportional equivalence in grades awarded, meant that a high proportion of students did better than may otherwise have been expected. If we returned to the usual system next year, it could be argued that students have been disadvantaged in comparison to their slightly older peers.

So on that level, we should welcome Gavin Williamson’s announcement that grading for next year will be in line with 2020 proportions – although the argument for going back to pre-determining the proportion of students attaining at each level is a weak one and seems likely to store up problems for the future.

As for every year – results will not be directly comparable with previous iterations. Students this year will receive advance notice of some topics that will be covered in the exam so they can focus their revision (and so teachers can drill and kill those topics for a huge part of the second year), and more materials (like formula sheets) will be provided in the exam hall. We are changing multiple variables here and there is no real way of knowing what the impact will be.

Broadly, there’s two ways to offer what we might call “no detriment” for exams. The first is what we see every year with students who may need a scribe or additional time to perform at their potential using an unsuitable method of assessment – and the early warning on topics and at-desk aide memoires can be seen as being in this tradition. The second way is to scale up everyone’s result using statistics – that’s the use of the revised grade proportions based on this year.

2020 saw a third system, abandoning the unsuitable method entirely and relying on centre and teacher projections (that themselves may well have been based in part on the differences between prediction and result in 2019). This is not a “no detriment” system, it is an alternative approach to assessment.

There is little that currently annoys me more than Gavin Williamson’s odd assertion that “exams are the fairest way to judge a student’s performance”. One reading of the 2020 results fiasco is that exams consistently underestimate student potential (according to UCAS data, particularly students from disadvantaged backgrounds)compared to the expectations of professional educators who have worked with them for two years. Exams are not the best method of assessment for all students in all circumstances, and I’m pretty sure teachers are fairly settled on that point.

Additional exams will be available if students miss their exam due to illness or self-isolation – one of the first times I think I’ve heard a governmental admission that we will still be dealing with the impact of Covid-19 in summer 2021. And an expert group will look at differential impacts “across the country” (I assume by region and characteristics).

The Ofqual release has a little more detail.

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