Exam boards should relax their grade boundaries for calculated grades this year, teachers say

close up of hand writing an exam

Disadvantaged students particularly at risk of being given lower grades than they would have achieved in exams

Grade boundaries for GSCE and A-level exams this year should be relaxed to reduce the risk of students’ predicted grades having a negative “life-long impact” – especially when it comes to ethnic minority and disadvantaged students, the education select committee has heard in an online session.

The education select committee is a group of cross-party MPs who meet with experts to discuss education-related issues, and this session was held to talk about the impact that Covid-19 has had on education. 

All exams have been cancelled this summer and students will instead be receiving calculated grades decided by their teachers. During the committee meeting, speakers raised fears that certain groups of students could be particularly vulnerable to missing out on the grades they would have received if this summer’s exams had gone ahead.

“There’s a lot of evidence already out there about some of the unintentional as well as intentional biases against particular students,” commented Dr Zubaida Haque, interim director of the Runnymede Trust, adding that the predicted grade system is “untried, untested and unevaluated, and that is a serious concern.”

“It’s alarming for us that Ofqual is more concerned about over-compensating students in terms of grade predictions than groups of students being under-predicted,” Haque finished.

And one possible solution to under-prediction is to relax the grade boundaries, the committee heard.

“Ofqual needs to relax the grade boundaries where there is doubt over whether someone should move up a grade mark rather than down,” general secretary of the National Education Union (NEU), Kevin Courtney, told the committee.

Professor Lee Elliot Major from the University of Exeter brought up the far-reaching impact that exam results can have on a student’s future career.

“The thing that worries me is that if you miss out on those threshold grades, that 4 in your English GCSE, you’re unlikely to get employed at the moment, so if you miss out on those grades that can have a life-long impact,” Elliot Major said.

To help mitigate this, universities and employers should be “far more creative and radical in how they judge talent,” Elliot Major said, and “universities are going to have to think about lowering grades further for those students who can show they’ve been particularly disrupted by this”.

group of students walking together

Disadvantaged students need to be given more support while schools stay closed

Depending on the coronavirus rates of infection, there’s a chance that schools won’t be able to reopen in September, Courtney said, and the longer students are out of school, the wider the attainment gap grows.

Ofsted has previously warned that school closures will widen the attainment gap between low-achieving and poor students and their higher achieving peers, partly because of a lack of access to resources like laptops and textbooks.

The government has promised free laptops and internet access to disadvantaged Year 10 students, but there have already been calls for the scheme to be expanded to include students from all year groups who need them.

“Let’s hope the virus is enough under control that we can get all students back in September, but I don’t think that’s what civil servants are estimating, so we’re looking at this disruption carrying on possibly even past September,” Courtney said during the committee meeting.

“I think that means that we have to ramp up this delivery of broadband and laptops for every student that needs them. Why aren’t we also delivering books and art materials to disadvantaged students?” he asked.

And Elliot Major and Haque both spoke about how summer schools could help disadvantaged students catch up. Undergraduate university students could give one-on-one support to disadvantaged students, Elliot Major said, while Haque suggested turning large outdoor spaces that are not currently being used, such as football stadiums and cricket fields, into temporary classrooms.

Schools should know what’s happening with the 2021 GCSE and A-level exams before the summer holidays

Students in Year 10 and 12 and their teachers need to know what’s happening with next year’s exams as soon as possible, Elliott Major pointed out.

“We need real clarity on what these exams are going to cover. Some teachers are going to give students as much content as possible over the last few weeks while others are just doing consolidation,” he said.

There have been reports that Ofqual is considering options including shortened papers and open-book exams for next year’s GCSEs and A-levels, but nothing has been confirmed yet.

During the committee meeting, Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, agreed that next year’s exams are a key priority and said that the exams regulator will be running a consultation on them with the aim of having an answer before the start of the summer holidays.

“2021 is at the forefront of our minds. We are considering the impact of lost teaching and learning. We are then looking at what that means for the exam system and what can be done. We’ll be coming forth with a full consultation and equalities impact assessment on 2021 in the coming weeks.

“Schools and teachers need to know very quickly, before the summer break ideally, what’s going to happen in September,” Collier said.

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