Thousands of teenagers around the country have woken up to good news this morning as A-Level results were released after another disrupted year of learning.
Under teacher assessed grades, nearly 45% of pupils have been awarded As and A*s, an increase in the number of students achieving those top grades in 2020 and 2019. While it’s fantastic to see more 17 and 18-year-olds getting what they wanted, there are still many that have lost out – many of whom are disadvantaged students.
Under shaky government advice, it’s been another year of confusing and inconsistent grading across schools that has had an impact on pupil mental health. But with consistency and equal access to resources, ending our reliance on high stakes tests offers real potential for future generations of students.
After the chaos caused by 2020’s quickly-scrapped algorithm, it was clear a different path was needed for pupils due to take exams in 2021.
Ofqual backed exams as the “fairest” method for assessing students until January, when schools had to close again as coronavirus (Covid-19) cases rose. Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced on 6 January that teachers would assess students. The problem quickly became deciding how that would be done.
There was backlash over a letter in which Williamson mentioned potential plans for ‘mini exams’ to assess students. Williamson later set out more detailed guidance for teacher assessment, saying there would be optional assessment questions for teachers to use, though teachers could base grades on a range of evidence.
Teachers said they found the process of assessing stressful and demanding, particularly as proper guidance wasn’t published until the week before Easter. Many also felt like policies were constantly changing.
The impact on pupils
As a result of the system, schools across the country employed completely different techniques for assessing students, with some using exams and others not. Schoolchildren were more likely to report struggling with their mental health this year, which reports say could also impact their performance significantly.
GCSE student Scooby Caesar wrote for The Canary:
I have friends who are suffering more panic attacks this year than any other year. I am one of those people, too.
Students at private schools have seen a larger jump in their likelihood of receiving As and A*s than state school pupils.
Disadvantaged pupils were also far more likely to have a harder time learning this year. More than a quarter of working class people who applied to university this year said they hadn’t had a proper study space at home, compared to 16% of middle class students. State school students were also more likely to feel like they had fallen behind at school.
Private school pupils’ grades also generally tended to be based on a wider variety of assessment methods, and teachers at deprived schools were more likely to say they felt like they had been unsupported in assessing students.
Once exams cancelled there was no way to assess pupils fairly and without grade inflation. Teacher assessments tend to inflate grades + disadvantage some groups (poorer kids & black kids tend to be marked lower.) Algorithms correct on a macro scale but individuals will lose out.
— Helen Barnard (@Helen_Barnard) August 10, 2021
There is still inequality in the system. But in many ways, not confining pupils to stressful, one-off exams could be a step in the right direction for fairness.
In recent years, many have accused the education system of increasingly ‘teaching to the test‘ only. Evidence from approaches in other countries has shown that reducing dependence on such high-stakes testing can be better for students and reduce attainment gaps.
Disadvantaged students are more likely to feel a ‘lack of control over their learning‘, which more flexible assessment methods like coursework could help with.
A wider variety of flexible assessments would also cater to a wider variety of pupils, and put less pressure on them to pull everything off in one exam.
We are being told that there is 'grade inflation' this year so we can return to the grim reality of one-off, high stakes testing. Maybe grades are up because counting course work means that most students do better! They can show what they know, better than in exams.
— Michael Rosen 💙💙🎓🎓 (@MichaelRosenYes) August 10, 2021
Teenagers have had an awful two years of being stuck inside all of the time, isolated from their peers, cut off from a normal education, and there are really adults bitching about grade inflation
— Hannah Jane Parkinson (@ladyhaja) August 10, 2021
These higher results are great for students and should be celebrated. They also offer an idea of what a less restrictive education system that doesn’t perpetuate inequality could look like. Let’s replicate their success going forward without being pushed into it by a pandemic. And let’s do it in a consistent way that ensures equality and access to learning resources for all students regardless of their background.
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