Ministers under pressure to review A-level results
There is a growing backlash at how almost 40% of grades in England were cut by regulator
Grade the student, not the school: threat of legal action unless Ofqual fix unfair A-level and GCSE grading algorithm
Students affected by the mass downgrading of A-level results in England have been urged to join a possible legal action against the Department for Education and the exams regulator.
Digital rights organisation Foxglove is threatening to take legal action against Ofqual – the government body that regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England – on the grounds that the algorithm being used to determine students’ estimated A-Level results potentially violates the Data Protection Act. Due to the pandemic, students’ final exam results are being estimated based on previous grades, but Foglove argue that schools, rather than individuals students, are being assessed.
Nearly 40% of A-level assessments by teachers were downgraded by the Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation’s algorithm, according to official figures published on Thursday morning. The method for allocating results was used because students could not be assessed during the coronavirus lockdown.
It seems very much so that private schools have benefited from the system, while state schools in deprived areas suffered disproportionately. A grades at private schools were up by 4.7% compared to 2019, compared to just 0.3% at Sixth form colleges.
But Boris Johnson defended the ‘contentious arrangements‘ aimed at preventing unwarranted grade inflation, saying there had been a “robust” marking system.
With exams cancelled because of the coronavirus crisis, A-level results released on Thursday were calculated through a two-part process: teachers estimated pupils’ grades, and then Ofqual, the watchdog, moderated the qualifications through statistical modelling that factored in schools’ past performance, among other considerations.
Across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the A-level results showed record levels of A* and A grades.
“There are early signs today that the results process may have had a disproportionately negative impact on the most disadvantaged students,” said Natalie Perera, executive director of the Education Policy Institute.
DISADVANTAGED PUPILS WORST HIT BY A-LEVEL DOWNGRADES, FIGURES SHOW
Ofqual’s algorithm doesn’t really grade the student—it grades the school. Ofqual has disclosed very little about its process, but has very recently let slip that for larger schools, teachers’ predicted grades don’t count at all: “Where a subject has more than 15 entries in a school, teachers’ predicted grades will not be used as part of the final grade calculation.” In practice, then, what matters is the school’s prior results. Millions of kids’ life chances hang on a statistical estimate based on their school’s previous performance compared to other schools.
The algorithm which determined the life chances of millions of English students by ‘estimating’ their GCSE and A-level results for this year risks being challenged in the courts unless the government acts swiftly to address concerns.
Curtis Parfitt-Ford, an A-level student at a comprehensive school in Ealing, supported by tech-justice group Foxglove, has demanded that Ofqual correct defects in its grading algorithm or potentially be taken to court.
In the wake of Covid, for the first time in history, A-level and GCSE students in England have been assessed not on their individual performance, but by an algorithm.
Class divide determined the results
Ofqual’s own figures showed that pupils at independent schools received double the improvement in A* and A grades compared with those attending state comprehensives, while sixth-form colleges received only a tiny improvement.
A survey of principals conducted by the Sixth Form Colleges Association found “huge variations” between the exam grades predicted by teachers – known as centre-assessed grades – and the final grades students received from Ofqual.
“While 39.1% of centre assessment grades were adjusted down by one or more grade overall, we are hearing from a number of colleges that over 50% of their grades have been adjusted downwards. Colleges with large cohorts and very stable and predictable results over time are seeing their lowest grade profile ever, particularly at the higher grades, A to C,” said the Association of Colleges chief executive, David Hughes.
“systemic bias” because on average more disadvantaged students attend further education colleges.
Hughes warned of “systemic bias” because on average more disadvantaged students attend further education colleges.
“At a minimum, the government must ensure that there is a free appeal system open to any people on academic grounds,” Parfitt-Ford said. He urged the government to stick with the grades teachers had given their pupils.
“Given the government’s decided to use mock exam results, the government should trust teachers because the teachers are the ones that set those mocks and who marked those mocks.”
Martha Dark, the director and co-founder of Foxglove, said: “We are seeing the very real impact of grades by algorithm today. It is heartbreaking that we are seeing years of study and hard work by students graded so unfairly. This completely undermines the sense that grades award individual effort and achievement.”
Teachers know best. To fix this system, government should institute a) an appeal route for students to challenge unfair results, and b) give greater weight to teachers’ assessments of their pupils.
Curtis Parfitt-Ford said: “My friends, my cohort, and all the other students awaiting results this year deserve better than to be graded by a postcode lottery. Our grades should track our capability and effort as individual students, and what’s been proposed quite simply does not do that. Ofqual acknowledges our teachers know best what we can do, so it doesn’t make any sense for their assessments to be ignored, and for the Government to choose to rely on a biased computer programme instead.
Whilst it’s progress of a sort that the Government announced they’ll allow students to appeal on the basis of mock exam results, that won’t work for a lot of us – especially because many mocks were disrupted by the pandemic. In practice right now a lot of us are still at the mercy of this algorithm.
I don’t want to have to comfort friends whose lives have been ruined by an unfair government algorithm. The Government must revamp its system, just as the Scottish Government chose to do yesterday.”
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary, said: “Hundreds of thousands of students have received a calculated grade today that will see them progress to the next stage of their education or into work with a record number of 18-year-olds in England securing a place at their first-choice university.
“This year we’ve seen an increase of 2.5 percentage points in A* and A grades and more than 96% of grades are either the same as the one submitted by schools or colleges or within one grade. Standardisation ensures grades are fair for students – without it, we would see results that were substantially inflated, significantly undermining their value.
“I know there are some really difficult cases, and we have already put support in place to help those students, including an enhanced appeal process. In addition, our triple-lock process means students will be able to accept their calculated grade, appeal on the basis of a valid mock result or sit an exam in the autumn.”
An Ofqual spokesperson said: “The arrangements we put in place this summer are the fairest possible to facilitate students progressing on to further study or employment as planned.”
Ofqual published precise detail of the model on Thursday. The exams regulator said it had been transparent about the principles of the standardisation model since April, and the data it would make use of.
“Schools and colleges can appeal if they believe there has been an error or that the moderation process has not produced a reliable result. Students will also be able to take an exam in the autumn, if they would like an opportunity to improve their grade,” Ofqual added.