Recently we published provisional entry numbers for the AS and A level autumn series which started on 5 October. This exceptional exam series was put in place to give students who were disappointed with their grade in the summer the opportunity to take an exam to try to improve their grade, and to give those private candidates who were unable to get a grade in the summer the opportunity to take an exam. To be as fair as we can to those students, we are working with exam boards to carry forward the generosity from summer 2020 grades, the majority of which were based on centre assessment grades.
As expected, entries for this exceptional series are relatively low. Overall A level entries are just over 20,000, a tiny fraction of the 700,000+ entries we’d expect in a summer series. We expect to see similarly low numbers for the autumn GCSEs, with the exception of English language and maths, where there is, in any year, a November series. November entries in 2019 were around 50,000 in each subject. We will publish provisional entry numbers for GCSE on 29 October.
What does all this mean for standard-setting in the autumn, and for results overall?
In a typical summer series, with a full cohort of students, exam boards use statistical predictions to guide their awards, because we expect the overall performance of the cohort of students to be largely stable from one year to the next.
In this exceptional autumn series, the largest entry A level subject is maths, with just over 4,000 entries, but there are many subjects where the overall entries are only a few hundred, which means even smaller numbers for each exam board. With such small numbers, the students entering for each subject are likely to be unrepresentative of those in the summer cohort. Statistics will therefore be of limited usefulness.
Instead, exam boards will rely much more heavily on the judgement of their expert senior examiners looking at the quality of student work, as is always the case in very small awards.
We are also clear that students sitting exams this autumn must be treated as fairly as possible, alongside students from summer 2020. As such, examiners will be guided by proxy grade boundaries. Exam boards will generate these by looking at how far the 2019 grade boundaries for each specification would have to move to achieve the proportion of students at the key grades we saw for each of those specifications in summer 2020. Archive student work, as well as several other sources of evidence about where grade boundaries should be set, will also be considered.
With such small entries in many subjects, it’s likely that the profile of results will be atypical. One exam board might have a very able entry for a subject and see far more students getting higher grades than in summer; another board might have a much weaker entry and might see much lower overall results. These autumn results should not be compared to summer 2020 or to summer 2019, because the profile of students entering in autumn is so different from a summer cohort.
Not all students in the autumn will have been able to receive a grade in the summer, but of those that did, many will be hoping to improve their grade from summer 2020. However, it is worth noting that, in previous years, many re-sitting students do not improve their grades. For example, in previous November series for GCSE English language and GCSE maths, about 60% of students get the same grade when they re-sit, about 30% improve their grade and around 10% get a lower grade.
This autumn series is not a typical re-sit series, since students in the summer did not take any exams. We don’t know, therefore, what proportion of students will improve on their summer 2020 grade, but we should not assume that every student will improve their grade. If they don’t, it’s important to remember that their grades from the summer will still stand. And if they do improve their grade, they will be able to request a new certificate which shows only their best result(s).
Looking further ahead, we know that schools, colleges and students want to know more about the approach that we will take to setting standards in summer 2021. Before we take a decision on that, we will be talking to exam boards, government, school and college leaders, parents and students, and we will say more on this before the end of the year.
We understand readers may have specific questions or concerns about their particular situation. While it isn’t possible to respond to individual questions via our blog, you can contact our Public Enquiries Team on 0300 303 3344 or via email: firstname.lastname@example.org