Last year we spoke to staff in schools and colleges after they had submitted their Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) and rank orders for summer 2020 GCSE, AS and A levels, as well as for many vocational qualifications. We interviewed over 50 teachers and had over 1,000 responses to an online survey. What we learnt from this research was helpful as we worked with exam boards to develop the guidance for schools and colleges in 2021. We’ve published two detailed reports which we think schools and colleges will find reassuring as they make final preparations for determining grades this summer.
It’s very clear from the interviews and the survey responses that teachers and senior leaders took the task extremely seriously. They were acutely aware of the importance of the grades for their students, and of the need for judgements to be objective and evidence-based. They were aware of concerns about unconscious bias, but they were confident that they had made fair judgments.
This is backed up by our research looking at summer 2020 results by ethnicity and socioeconomic status. This showed no evidence of systematic bias for or against any particular groups of students.
In 2020, the guidance produced by Ofqual and the awarding organisations was the primary reference point for the centre judgement process. From this, schools and colleges developed their own approach within the parameters of the guidance. Teachers worked collaboratively with colleagues to determine the CAG for each student and used a range of evidence to help them do this. This included mock exam results, marks from work completed throughout the course, and predicted and target grades. Much of this evidence was already collected and recorded as part of the normal arrangements for monitoring students’ progress and so was readily available. Similar data and evidence will have been available for students due to take exams in 2021. Where it was not, for example for private candidates who had not previously worked with a centre, the arrangements we put in place made it possible for them to work with a centre to produce sufficient evidence to receive a grade.
In 2020, we asked teachers to judge the grade each student was most likely to have achieved if they had taken their exams. Our advice was that they should assume it would be no harder or easier to get a grade in 2020 than in previous years. Teachers told us they did that. So how does that explain overall results in 2020 being higher than in 2019?
Our research suggests teachers in 2020 judged according to the ‘normal’ performance standard, but, understandably, they tended to give their students the grade they thought they could achieve if they had “a good day” in the exams. They also recognised that if those students had taken exams, some of them – and they could not always be sure which ones – would not have had a good day and so might not have achieved the grade.
This quote from a teacher in 2020 sums it up.
“For those students who are genuinely borderline between two grades, [they] could go either way; whereas in an exam roughly half of them will get the higher grade, half will get the lower. That’s where it’s really hard as a teacher, because how would you pick which half you’re saying right, no actually I’ll give you the lower grade.”
The increases in results in 2020 were not because teachers were more generous in their judgements about the standard required for a grade 4, or a grade A. Rather, it was because they could not know which of their students might have had a bad day in the exams and therefore they assumed all students would get the grade they might get on a good day.
In 2021, teachers’ judgements are different. In 2020 we asked them to judge the grade a student would have achieved if they had sat their exams. In 2021, they are judging students’ performance on the content they have been taught. Exam boards have provided detailed guidance – as well as training – on the process teachers should go through and the considerations they should make, to support teachers in making these judgements. Teachers will select an appropriate range of evidence to support their judgements. Our research suggests they will undertake this task carefully and seriously, to make sure the grades are as fair as they can be as a measure of attainment, given the exceptional circumstances we continue to face.
Director of Standards and Comparability