Featured Opinion

Exam disruption presents opportunities – will they be taken?

I was quite nervous in the run-up to this year’s A-Level and GCSE results days. This may be surprising, perhaps, for somebody who had not sat any exams. When I saw students posting about their feelings awaiting results on social media, or giving advice on how to handle unexpected results and Clearing, it took me back to last year when I received my A-level grades. My results day was not particularly successful. Thanks to the government’s heavy-handed algorithm, my grades were reduced in three of my subjects, and I lost my Oxford offer. Situations like this were not uncommon amongst students at my state comprehensive or in state schools across the country. Many students faced losing university or apprenticeship places as a direct result and received grades far below what their teachers had decided they were capable of, all in the name of preventing grade inflation. The U-turn towards using teacher’s predictions was happily welcomed, and I was cautiously optimistic when it was announced a teacher assessment system would be used this year.

Indeed, the news was  much more positive than last year.  44.3% of A-level entries were awarded A or above and 28.5% of GCSE entries were awarded a 7 or above . This is a significant increase in the proportion of top grades compared to the last time exams were sat properly, in 2019, with the respective percentages of top grades being 25.2% for A-levels and 20.7% for GCSEs. This clearly represents a level of grade inflation, which is seen to be problematic by many. It is true grade inflation presents challenges. Higher grades mean more students meet university or sixth-form offers which makes it difficult to fit them all in. Some argue it devalues the qualification, or disadvantages students from previous years. But in such an extraordinary year, arguably extraordinary results are to be expected.

The arguments condemning grade inflation are often condescending. There is a sentiment that students did not deserve these high grades – that they were simply handed to them, with no hard work required. But sitting an exam at the end of a two-year course is not the only thing that requires hard work. The past two years have been extraordinarily difficult for students, who have had to contend with constant uncertainty over their futures, adapting to online learning, and the loss of peer support networks and extra-curricular activities. Students have worked hard over the past two years to cope with this and deserve to be rewarded for their efforts. These grades have not been pulled out of thin air. Rather, they have been carefully considered by teachers, considering the work the students have produced. To be working at an A/A* or 8/9 standard in the face of all of this is impressive, and students deserve to be awarded those grades.

It is true that not every student who got a top grade this year would have achieved it in an exam, but it is impossible to predict which capable students would fall short of the mark on exam day. There is a certain amount of luck inherent in the exam system and by extension university admissions. They rely on some students having a bad day on the day of their exam and not performing at their best, thereby missing their predicted grades and losing university offers. This element of luck does not factor into teacher assessment to the same extent, and it is not a surprise that more students appear to do well when their performance is assessed holistically based on months of work, rather than relying entirely upon performance in an intense exam period that by nature will disadvantage some students.

Ultimately, there was little in the way of viable alternatives to teacher assessment given the situation for this year’s cohort. Attempting to run a full set of exams would have been practically impossible, due to the  vast discrepancies in the quality of remote learning,  content covered by students across different schools, the danger of missing exams through self-isolation, and the reliance on external invigilators, many of whom would likely be reluctant to work in an environment surrounded by unvaccinated students. Last year’s controversy clearly revealed that attempts to standardise the grade distribution were unfair, giving a clear advantage to the privately educated and those in very small classes (this second category tends to overlap largely with the former), and leaving students at state schools with grades far below what they were capable of.

The previous two years also bring into question whether the usual system of examination really is the best way to assess students. If so many more are capable of attaining higher grades when assessed by their performance across the course rather than in one go at the end, are exams really a fair and accurate measure of ability? An exam suits a specific kind of person well: someone who is able to focus for long periods of time, to manage sustained revision periods and simply remember two years’ worth of in-depth content across multiple subjects at the same time. Not every student is that person, but does that mean they are less capable than their peers who are? This supposed grade inflation begs the question in my mind of if the exam system really separates out the brightest students, or just identifies those who thrive in exam conditions. I am not advocating for the immediate end to all national exams, but rather for consideration to be taken over if exams really are the fairest and most useful method of assessment. Any new system would, of course, have to ensure that students who sat exams pre-COVID are not disadvantaged.

The teacher assessment method, as it stands, is unlikely to be sustainable. It presents a logistical challenge for universities – more students getting better grades means top universities will struggle to find space for all of them. It has been reported that universities may introduce entrance exams to aid selection. This may solve the space problem, but it carries its own risk of widening educational inequality – it is likely that independent schools will have more time and resources to coach their students for more challenging admissions processes than state schools will, as is already the case for Oxford and Cambridge. From the teacher’s point of view, the extra work and stress caused by this system of grading is not something that is viable to repeat year after year, on top of all the extra work in mitigating the effects of COVID-related disruption to education on non-exam years.

There is probably no perfect solution to the question of how best to assess the knowledge and abilities of students in this country. Nevertheless, the disruption to A-levels over the past two years has given those in charge of education a unique opportunity to evaluate the exam system and its effectiveness. It remains to be seen whether they will take it.