This year’s A Levels results have, without doubt, caused stress, anger and pain to students and families across the country as they received their results only to find that Ofqual’s process of centre assessed grades, centre ranking and standardisation algorithm had awarded them lower grades than they were expecting. It does seem that the process Ofqual had put into place, including the decisions for structuring the algorithm they way they did, has issues which have resulted in some nonsensical gradings.
This had led many to summarise that the fairest solution is to follow Scotland’s lead and use only the Centre Assessed grades (CAGs) as the awarded grades. This would be an incredibly unfair outcome on, I believe, a much larger number of young people than have been negatively affected by Ofqual’s substandard process. It’s worth saying at this point that I won’t be offering a complete solution to the issue; there are many who believe that you simply can’t award grades this year. No exams were taken and you can’t accurately conjure up grades from nothing. Others will point out that this chaos shows that placing so much weight on single exams is not the correct method of assessment. All are valid points but let’s consider outcomes of awarding CAGs in the situation we have.
A post CAG standardisation process is required because the evidence is clear that teachers struggle to achieve accuracy in their grade predictions.
Teachers’ predicted grades have been shown to be inaccurate but the majority of inaccurate grades are over-predicted – in other words, too high.
- There is limited research on the impact of predicted grades, though studies of prediction accuracy by individual grade (e.g. how many As were predicted to be As) by Delap (1994) and Everett and Papageourgiou (2011) showed around half of all predictions were accurate, while 42-44% were over-predicted by at least one grade, and only 7-11% of all predicted grades were under-predicted.
- Studies of prediction accuracy according to a student’s best three A Levels show even higher rates of inaccuracy (unsurprisingly, since it is harder to predict all three A Levels correctly). For example, Wyness and Murphy find that only 16% of students received accurate predictions for all three, with 75% over-predicted and just 8% under-predicted.
This is not a slight on teachers, merely the evidence that predicting such complicated events is impossible – as summarised well in this thread. Ofqual considers the implications of this from page 13 in their report on the process.
The actual results Ofqual’s process has resulted in
To counteract some of the reporting, let’s first consider the actual results Ofqual’s process awarded this year. 60% of CAGs submitted have remained the same. Results are higher this year and they are higher for disadvantaged students (low SES) than their peers
Overall low SES students were awarded more As and A*s than previous years and were also awarded numbers of As and A*s which were less affected by the standardisation model. In other words, despite the tone of much commentary, middle class and rich students had their As & A*s “downgraded” more than working class students.
This was not a system which was completely biased against those from poorer backgrounds. It has already resulted in the highest numbers of those from low SES backgrounds progressing onto University
It is undeniable though that the Ofqual algorithm (as described in the blog linked above) has resulted in issues for high achieving low SES students in large cohorts, especially in Colleges and Sixth Form Colleges and those attending centres with poor previous results (as well as the odd Eton pupil). These are individuals who deserve an appeal process that works and to be treated like an individual with consideration.
What would awarding CAGs look like?
On page 134, Ofqual shows what grades awarding just CAGs this year would result in.
Compared to previous years, this would mean that grades, especially at the top end, would significantly rise.
It is this which would cause huge ripples of unfairness across cohorts and groups of other students.
The unfairness CAGs would cause
- Research shows that BAME students are historically (and so are likely to have been this year) under-predicted compared to their peers. The Ofqual model has “uplifted” few grades
but relying on only CAGs would eliminate even those.
2. Increasing the number of A*s and As awarded to 37.7% of all grades this year causes huge implications for Oxbridge and other selective Universities. How are they going to decide to award a limited number of places to those students? It has been suggested they would revert to a lottery system. The weight of unfairness of having your place at University purely on the chance of your name being selected from a hat is a whole new extreme of unfair. Another option would be to ask some of this year’s cohort to defer to next year but this would impact the chances of next year’s cohort who have already missed large amounts of learning and will not get the uplift from CAGs.
3. With nearly 38% of A Level leavers now getting A*s and As, how do employers offering Level 4 and 5 Apprenticeships begin to shift the larger number of academically qualified applicants? Placing a greater burden of selective responsibility on recruitment processes such as assessment days only disadvantages low SES applicants less likely to have the support around than their peers to make it successfully through the application process.
4. What impact would this sudden influx of more highly achieving A Level students have than peers also applying for University and Apprenticeships who took other qualifications? 274, 567 students have taken A Levels this summer:
But more than 250,000 will have taken BTECs this year alongside other vocational qualifications with over 100,000 of those at Level 3+ (page 26). Many in engineering, sport, digital and other areas will be competing against their A Level awarded peers for University and Apprenticeships. These young people would be massively disadvantaged by the sudden influx of highly awarded A Level leavers into a tough labour market. We also know that large numbers of low SES students take vocational qualifications and use them to progress in Higher Education. Giving a boost to their A Level awarded peers is hugely unfair to young people who took a decision to take a different route.
5. The negative impact of awarding CAGs would also be felt by cohorts from previous and future years who will be competing in the labour market against this year’s A Level cohort for those important first steps in employment. This would be a huge number of students placed at a disadvantage through no fault of their own. The economy will take a long period to recover post COVID19, yet awarding CAGs would hand an advantage to a small group over a much larger number of students.
6. The unfairness continues as awarding CAGs penalises those students who attended schools where their teachers submitted grades internally moderated against their centre’s past performance, against students who attended schools where teachers submitted more optimistic predictions. Through no fault of their own, students whose teachers were more conservative in their assessments will be punished.
This is clearly a situation with no easy answers and one that is causing hurt and stress to young people and their families right now. A blog post considering statistics is no balm to them but I hope that I have at least asked you to consider that just awarding CAGs is not a quick option with no negative consequences. The repercussions of that decision would, I believe, negatively impact huge numbers of young people, many of whom will be from disadvantaged backgrounds, studying qualifications other than A Levels and trying to work hard for their own future in all the uncertainty that COVID19 has brought.