The Summer 2020 Exams. What went wrong and why?

In normal times, exams would be externally set, marked and moderated and any coursework would be subject to external verification. But as the Covid-19 pandemic surged, on 17th March, the UK government announced that all schools and colleges would close until further notice, and on 18th  March it was announced that all 2020 summer examinations would be cancelled.

On 3rd April, Ofqual, the exams regulator for England, published guidance for how exam grades for students in England would be determined in the absence of exams. Teachers would submit predicted grades for their students, which would then be ranked and sent to the relevant exam board. The grades would then be ‘standardised’ using an algorithm developed by Ofqual.

This involved the use of a complex statistical model that included teachers’ grade predictions, the rank position of individual students, students’ previous exam results (e.g. for A-Level students, prior GCSE results) and the school or college’s exam performance compared with those of other schools and colleges in the previous three years. The aim, said Ofqual, was to ‘moderate grades awarded’ and to ‘…address doubts about the consistency and fairness of teacher predictions’.

Similar arrangements were developed by the exams’ regulators of the devolved governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The Scottish exams regulator, the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA) was the first to publish its standardised results and did so on 4 August. Although these showed an overall improvement compared with 2019, they also revealed that more than a quarter of teacher assessed grades had been lowered. After a deluge of protest, on 11 August, the Scottish Government instructed the SQA to withdraw the standardised grades and to replace them with the higher of teacher predicted grades or standardised grades.

This significantly increased the final grades. For example, compared to results in 2019:

  • National 5 grade A-C pass rates (equivalent to English GCSE grades 4-9) increased by 10%.
  • Higher (roughly equivalent to AS-Level) pass rates increased by 14%.
  • Advanced Higher (roughly equivalent to A-Level) pass rates increased by 13%.

This set the scene for what was to happen on 13th August, the date when other UK countries published their standardised A-Level results.

Welsh A-Level results revealed that although 94% of the standardised grades awarded were the same, or within one grade, of those predicted by teachers, 42% of grades had been lowered by the regulator, Qualifications Wales. Responding to the outrage that followed, on 17th August the Welsh Government instructed the regulator to withdraw the standardised grades and replace them with the higher of teacher predicted grades or standardised grades. Final grades significantly increased. For example:

  • More than 40% of students were awarded A* or A at A-Level in 2020 compared to 27% in 2019.
  • 75% of GCSE grades awarded were at A* to C compared to 63% in 2019
  • 25% of grades were awarded at A and A*, up from 18% in 2019.

In Northern Ireland, 97% of the standardised grades were either the same or within one grade of teacher predicted grades. However, 37% of grades had been lowered. Following the public furore that ensued, on 17 August the Northern Ireland Assembly instructed the Northern Ireland Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) to withdraw the standardised grades and replace them with the higher of teacher assessed grades or standardised grades.

At A-Level this meant that:

  • 15% of students were awarded an A*, a 6% increase on 2019.
  • 45% of students were awarded A* or A grades, a 13% increase on 2019.
  • The overall A*- E pass rate increased to 99.9%.

At GCSE level:

  • 37% of grades were awarded at A* and A, up from 33% in 2019.
  • 89% entries were awarded A* to C grades, up from 82% in 2019.

Then it was England’s turn.

Although 96% of all standardised A-Level grades awarded to students were either the same (59%) or within one grade of their teacher assessed grades, 39% of students (around 280,000) had been awarded grades that were lower.

Ofqual attempted to defend the standardisation process saying, ‘Our initial analysis showed that teacher assessed grades were, in general, over optimistic’ and warned that, ‘…if predicted grades are not standardised, ‘…this year’s results will be around 12% higher overall at A-Level and 9% higher overall at GCSE level than in 2019’.

In response to the tsunami of complaints that followed, on 17th August the UK government followed the lead of other UK nations and instructed Ofqual to withdraw the standardised grades and replace them with the higher of teacher predicted grades or standardised grades. On 20th August, the revised examination results were published which showed that grades had been increased significantly.

At A-Level:

  • Grades awarded at A* increased from 8% in 2019 to 14% in 2020.
  • Grades awarded at A and A* increased from 25% in 2019 to 38% in 2020.
  • Grades awarded at B or above rose from 51% in 2019 to 65% in 2020.
  • Grades awarded at C or above rose from 76% in 2019 to 88% in 2020.

At GCSE level:

  • Awards at grade 9 (the highest grade) increased from 5% in 2019 to 7% in 2020.
  • Awards at grades 7-9 (the highest grades) increased from 22% in 2019 to 28% in 2020.
  • Grades awarded at 5 and above (a strong pass) increased from 54% in 2019% to 62% in 2019.
  • Grades awarded at 4 and above (equivalent to grade C or above under the previous letter grading system) increased from 70% in 2019 to 79% in 2020.

The algorithm used to standardise grades in England was accused of producing results that favoured students from better off families. In actual fact it was biased in favour of small group sizes and higher performing schools and colleges. The larger the group size taking the exam, the less weighting teacher predicted grades had.

For groups of 15 or more, teacher predicted grades had hardly any weighting at all, whereas only teacher predicted grades were used for groups of 5 or less. This benefitted schools and colleges that could afford to run smaller group sizes. The algorithm also disadvantaged bright students in low-achieving schools and colleges, or students in schools and colleges that were rapidly improving, while average students in high achieving schools and colleges were likely to be advantaged by it.

One of the consequences of the grade U-turn is that around 60,000 more students met the requirements for their preferred university place.

Figures released by University and College Admissions Service (UCAS) prior to the abandonment of the standardised grades showed that a record number of students (358,860) had already been accepted onto degree courses this year, a 2.9% increase on the same period in 2019.

Of these, 316,730 had already been accepted at their first choice university, an increase of 2.7% compared on the same point in 2019. To help accommodate the extra students, the UK government agreed with universities, including Russell Group universities, that those students whose grades had been increased could ‘self-release’ from their existing offer and accept their original first choice offer. Also, the student number cap scheduled to be introduced in England this year was lifted, including the restrictions on the numbers of places on medical, dentistry and veterinary courses.

Standardised grades awarded for Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VTQs) at Level 3 and above in England were also published on 13th August. Because VTQs involve more in-course assessment, the algorithm used was similar, but not exactly the same, as that for A-Levels and GCSE’s. Ofqual claimed that the VTQ grades awarded were ‘…broadly comparable with the results in previous years’. However, on 20th August, Pearson, the BTEC awarding body, announced that it was withdrawing the Level 3 grades previously issued and would not issuing Level 2 grades on the scheduled date. The move affected around 450,000 students. The reason for this, said Pearson, was that unlike A-Level and GCSE students, BTEC students were not given the option of receiving grades based only on teacher predictions. Pearson said it intended to revisit the BTEC standardisation process because Level 3 BTEC students could be placed at a disadvantage relative to A-Level students when applying for university and Level 2 students could be placed at a disadvantage relative to GCSE students when applying for places on Level 3 college courses.

The subdued response to the publication of the standardised VTQ grades was in stark contrast to the vitriol following the publication of the standardised A-Level and GCSE grades. Perhaps, when it comes to the vocational/academic divide, it is only the academic that really matters. Meanwhile, spare a thought for students due to take their exams next summer. Not only have they missed a huge amount of teaching, it seems very unlikely that they will be given the benefit of grades just based on teacher predictions.

Alan Birks CBE

Alan Birks CBE, a Fellow of The Lunar Society, is one of the most well-respected ambassadors of UK further education and an experienced former college Principal. He was Principal at South Birmingham College for 20 years, driving substantial growth, financial stability and successful inspection outcomes.  In this article, written specially for The Lunar Society, he analyses the background to what TES described as the ‘exam grade fiasco’.