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2020 exams student gradings cause ‘controversy’

THE latest chaos and confusion over grading for A Level and AS levels has made the news as Ministers shape shift and move the goalposts to try and make some sort of process appear to be fair for the many thousands of students who through no fault of their own have been thrown into a grading system, which has struggled to cope with the curveball which was and still is COVID-19.

In this article, former Schools Inspector Gwynoro Jones takes a look at what has happened across the UK as governments announce their latest approach to assessing students.

Former Schools Inspector: Gwynoro Jones

As in Scotland and England, the publication of the AS and A level results in Wales has ended up in controversy. There has been a call for a review of the awarding process used which was a combination of teacher assessments and a subsequent standardisation mechanism.

When initial findings began to emerge the examination watchdog indicated that the gradings had “been too generous” and would have to be revised downwards to ensure standardisation and consistency.

When the results were announced Thursday (August 13) the data for Wales showed a record proportion of A and A* grades at 29.9%, up 2.9 percentage points from 2019. But significantly this was less than the 40.4% estimated after the initial teacher assessments

The announced results for Wales also revealed that performance at both A* to C and A*-A grades in Wales is higher than in all regions of England, apart from the south-east, which is only slightly higher.

The results for Wales further indicated that proportionately more pupils received more top grades and grades A* to C than in England, but fewer than in Northern Ireland. Also, the performance at both A* to C and A*-A grades in Wales is higher than in all regions of England, apart from the south-east, which is only slightly higher.

But despite all this encouraging and praiseworthy performance, the concerning statistic was that the announced results saw 42% of students had their result downgrade from the original assessment made by schools and teachers. Yet 53.7% of students received the same as forecasted earlier with 4.1% achieving a higher grading,

In the meantime, in order to forestall some of the looming criticism, the Welsh government has already announced a free appeals process for students and that no student should have got a grade lower than their AS results of 2019

Qualifications Wales chief executive Philip Blaker said this year’s process had not disadvantaged particular groups of pupils.

“We have analysed attainment gaps this year relative to previous years – looking at aspects such as gender, age and eligibility for free school meals”, he said.

“Our analysis shows no statistically significant differences this year relative to other years.”

Although Wales’ First Minister Mark Drakeford is claiming that it was a “record year” for results and that “the big picture is we have more students achieving, more students achieving at the very top end of the scale, and a record number of people from Wales accepted into university.” the criticisms and allegations of unfairness has burst into the open.

Several Labour Senedd members are asking for an urgent review and Plaid Cymru urging that pupils who have received a lower grading should receive their earlier teacher assessment predicted results.

A Welsh Government spokesman has stressed however that about 94% of the grades were the same or within one grade of those that students were predicted to achieve earlier on in the process.

“This is before any adjustments are made as a result of the AS [level] floor announced yesterday by the minister for education,” he added.

In England, the education minister Gavin Williamson and the government too are facing increasing and mounting backlash over the contentious A-level grading system used. Among the many critics is the Labour leader Keir Starmer who is calling on the UK government to scrap its “fatally flawed” results system.

Mr Starmer has even called on the Prime Minister to resolve the situation with “a Scottish Government-style U-turn”,

When the results were announced by the exam regulator Ofqual it transpired that 39% of teachers’ assessment was downgraded by one or more grades. Figures from Ofqual also showed that some 24,000student results were lowered by more than one grade – something the schools’ minister Nick Gibbs had said would not happen.

What has further added to the dismay and anger in England has been the revelation that independent schools faired much better than state schools and experienced greater rises in the grades awarded.

Perhaps the most shocking revelation as was the case in Scotland was that the greatest reduction in grades awarded was recorded within those students and schools from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In an attempt to retrieve the situation Mr Williamson abruptly announced that students could use results from their mock examination to appeal. That actually just added to the whole controversy because schools across the country approach such mock examinations in so many different ways and added to which a lot of schools don’t even hold them at all.

Turning to Scotland, initially, the Scottish government announced results also following a moderation process by the Scottish Qualifications Authority which saw over 125,000 students having their grades reduced. But within a day the government did a complete turnaround.

Over the last four years, pass rates in Scotland in nearly all the school education institutions fell. Even after the 2020 moderation process the results bucked the trend and revealed increases in grades. However, after the uproar and cries of unfairness and mounting concerns, the Scottish government reverted to the original recommended grades as per teacher assessment.

The 2020 grade results in Scotland reveal increased performance of 10.4% for National 5s, 14% for Highers and 13.4% for Advanced Highers. Results in Scotland have not just bucked the trends of the last four years but smashed them.

The ongoing controversy raises questions over the credibility of the whole process, which many claim has been completely unfair to the student population. It remains to be seen whether or not the powers that be are able to sort out the mess once and for all in readiness for the students of 2021.

Featured Image: Tulane Public Relations / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

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