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Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle: Professor Alan Smithers on Exam Results and Grade Inflation

Illustration by Eliott Rose

In many ways, A-level and GCSE results days are the same every year, characterised by celebration, commiseration, and plenty of nervous students. But behind the scenes, the last two years have been different as, thanks to the pandemic, exams were cancelled in favour of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs). Although necessary given the circumstances, this novel procedure has not been without its problems. Most notably, it has led to more students than ever before receiving top grades, putting pressure on universities. To understand these changes, The Oxford Blue sat down with Professor Alan Smithers, an expert in exam results and director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER), to discuss TAGs, grade inflation, and what they mean for the future.

Two years after they were first introduced, teacher assessments are beginning to feel a little more familiar, but Professor Smithers is keen to place them back in context. “It’s been a necessary procedure,” he says, and wasn’t even the first response to the pandemic. As he reminds us, “it was thought last year that the regulator could actually calculate the grades pretty accurately,” referring to attempts by Ofqual to input information like a school’s past results and teacher rankings of their students to provide results in line with previous years.  On one level, this was successful; results at the cohort level were close to previous cohorts’ results. However, some students had grades dropped, sometimes dramatically, in ways that felt arbitrary. In Professor Smithers eyes, upholding this system was not an option. “The government had to do something, and it decided just to take teacher predicted grades.”

The most obvious result of this new system has been huge grade inflation and Professor Smithers is quick to highlight quite how huge the problem is. “The rises are truly astonishing,” he tells me. “At A-level, the percentage getting an A or A* went up from 25% in 2019, the final year of exams, to 45% this year,” with a similar but slightly smaller trend in GCSE results. Perhaps even more amazing is this year’s unprecedented 100% pass rate at GCSE. For the pupils receiving these higher grades, this is undeniably a good thing, but Professor Smithers points out that there are downsides too. “The question is, are the people getting the accurate information that they can get from examinations?”

The fear is that they are not and that this will cause problems, particularly for universities. “Many more will be qualified to go to university,” he tells me, “but will there be room for them?” Although universities may be able to expand lecture space and provide larger classes, other resources like laboratories may be more limited. This may lead to less students doing their first choice of course and to lower quality education once there. Recent news that Bristol University has become so overbooked that it is considering housing students in Bath adds credence to these fears. In addition, “more students may actually be making a bit of a mistake.” Professor Smithers suggests that the lack of objective exam information may encourage students to start courses they are not suited to, resulting in an increase in dropout rates. To avoid these issues, Professor Smithers tentatively predicts that exams may be set by education institutions and employers to make up for the loss of “precise distinguishing information that they feel they can rely on”. In this way, exams may creep back into life despite teacher assessed grades at A-level and GCSE.

What makes these problems all the more frustrating is that they could have been avoided, at least this year. “The examination boards and Ofqual could have adopted more of a regulatory function,” he tells me, suggesting that this would have controlled grade inflation to a degree. In particular, Ofqual could have requested teachers double check and revise their predictions if they differed greatly from the distribution of previous years, but in reality, the regulator was “half-hearted”. In Professor Smithers eyes, this is a missed opportunity, as regulation would have been the best way to counter the loss of objectivity resulting from teacher predictions. Even the best efforts of teachers cannot counter the fact that they can only judge in the context of their experience. The risk is that “someone who may appear very good within a particular school would actually only be moderate in another school”, and only national bodies like Ofqual were in a position to reintroduce the national standards that exams bring.

As it is, the government is now faced with the issue of reintroducing strict standards after two years of teacher assessment. Even Professor Smither, who describes himself as a “believer” in exams, recognises that it will be immensely unpopular to bring back exams. Nevertheless, he is eager to see them return for the “independent” and “objective” information they provide, even if it is not “politically or practically possible” to simply recalibrate.

The problem now facing government is one of how to “put the genie back in the bottle” and it will require “strong leadership”. Still, Professor Smithers has a few suggestions of ways to ease the political pressure of the return to exams. “A way around it is to recalibrate the scale and come up with a different labelling system,” he says. Such a solution would involve using a new labelling system, such as Greek letters, for A-level and GCSE grades with new standards for each new grade. It is even possible to fix the proportions that are awarded each grade in a partial return to the methods of 1951-1987. Whether the government will ultimately decide to take this advice is unclear, but “the government has got to do something”. There seems to be little doubt in Professor Smithers mind that what is done must include exams.