A Personal Perspective on Public Exams in a Pandemic
A level and GCSE results days in 2020 were strange affairs. In some ways there was much to celebrate – record-breaking results, and also victory for teachers and students who had campaigned against the algorithm that used past exam achievements to determine current candidate results. With such good results, record numbers of students were able to progress to their first choice universities. So 2020 looks like an attainment success story because despite the national lockdown, school closures, weaknesses in remote teaching and learning and all the anxieties associated with a pandemic, the class of 2020 achieved better results than any previous year group.
Yet when I was congratulating the class of 2020 on ‘their’ achievements students questioned my use of the possessive pronoun. Many felt the 2020 results were not ‘theirs’, for they had been given no voice in the decision to cancel public exams and replace with centre-assessed grades (CAGs). This was something that politicians, regulators and teachers had done to students and they resented their lack of agency in the process. Students felt they had been denied the opportunity to prove themselves and, like sportsmen and women training for an event that is then cancelled, there was a sense of loss and anti-climax.
For many students public exams are an important external and objective verification of their abilities. Yes, students respect their teachers but they know that teachers look kindly on their own pupils, (something borne out by the inflated 2020 CAGs) and they crave the independent validation of the public exam system. Insecurity is a common teenage trait and the importance of external verification for adolescent self-confidence and wellbeing should not be underestimated.
Many in the class of 2020 are lukewarm about their record-breaking results. They know that with no national standardisation process, variations in centre generosity skewed results. Candidates of the same ability got different grades depending on where their centre was on a spectrum that ran from ‘optimistic most likely grade’ with no reference to centre prior performance to ‘realistic most likely grade’ moderated down by centre prior performance. The latter remains one of the big injustices of the 2020 results because some centres, following Ofqual and professional body advice, used their historic average results to shape their 2020 predictions. In effect, these centres were using their own algorithm to moderate CAGs. However, as this was part of the CAG process, it was not undone by the subsequent Department for Education decision to scrap the Ofqual algorithm because it was not fair to use past candidates’ performance to determine current candidates’ results.
Whilst the headline statistics might suggest 2020 was a year of incredible educational achievements in the face of pandemic adversity, it was also a case study in how not to do things.
The decision to cancel public exams was taken with good intents, but without a clear idea of what would replace them. Trying to develop a new national assessment method at speed during a pandemic and when the main players had other demands on their time and energy was always going to be problematic. The mutant algorithm ‘mutated’ because too much was expected too quickly of Ofqual and the exam boards with too little critical review from those representing students, school, universities and employers. Fair assessment processes that deliver reliable outcomes take years not months to build. Late changes introduce uncertainty for students and teachers, as well as additional risks that can undermine the validity of qualifications and the fairness of results.
I hope that we can learn some lessons from 2020, so that the class of 2021 have a better, fairer, nationally standardised, assessment experience. Whilst some educational commentators are highlighting lost teaching and learning time and calling for 2021 public exams to be cancelled as a means to address educational inequality, I favour sticking with tried-and-tested GCSEs and A levels, but modifying them so they deliver fair outcomes.
‘Act in haste and repent at leisure’ and ‘better the devil you know’ were two of my grandmother’s favourite sayings. Both ring true as we consider how to assess the class of 2021. Whilst it may be tempting to cancel public exams, it would be folly to do so without a well-planned and tested alternative. There doesn’t appear to be any such well prepared assessment plan B ready to go in the event that public exams are cancelled. Indeed, the worry must be that March 2021 becomes a re-run of March 2020 with government cancelling a known and established assessment system to replace it with an uncertain concept defined by an imperfect process.
With vaccines and better weather likely to lead to an improving Covid situation in spring 2021, public exams should be logistically possible. For those who have been disadvantaged by Covid, modifications to the existing A level and GCSE systems, such as reduced content and enhanced special consideration, may be the least worst way forward. The ‘known knowns’ of nationally standardised public exams are more attractive than the ‘unknown unknowns’ of any yet to be devised alternative. However, most importantly I end where I started with the students. In 2021 they should be given agency and a chance to determine their own grade outcomes by sitting the public exams they have spent years preparing for.