Education Reform

Assessment reform must go hand-in-hand with resetting standards

10 Sep 2021, 4:00

There are no easy options for re-standardising exam results post-Covid, writes a former AQA director, and that’s reason enough to revisit how we assess students

Two years with no GCSE or A level exams have stretched qualification standards to their limits. The number of A levels awarded a top grade in 2021 increased by three-quarters from 2019, with A and A* now accounting for over 44 per cent of all grades.

This was the inevitable outcome of cancelling exams, and perhaps the only way to be fair to those students. But a system in which standards bear no resemblance to previous (or future) years is not helpful for students who need qualifications to have currency, or colleges, universities and employers who need them for selection.

The pandemic has thus shown the importance of exams, and simultaneously highlighted the weakness of our all-or-nothing linear system. With exams set to return next year, the Government, Ofqual and the exam boards face an extraordinary challenge. Where –and how –should qualification standards be set in 2022?

There are broadly two options. One, recommended in a recent Institute for Government report, is to accept that the standard has moved forever and re-baseline it in line with, say, the 2020 outcomes. This may be the simplest option, and perhaps fairest to future cohorts, but it would destroy the whole idea of a ‘standard’.

The past two years have been genuinely exceptional; if we accept that standards can bepermanently abandoned, the credibility of our exams cannot last long. This solution would also be deeply unfair to those who took their exams before the pandemic, and could be in breach of Ofqual’s statutory objective to secure standards over time.

There are potential disadvantages to past or future cohorts whatever decisions are made

Re-baselining could be accompanied by wider reform, such as moving A-levels to a numerical grading scale. This was tried when GCSEs moved to 9-1 grades, but they ultimately had to be anchored to the previous A*-G scale because of the importance of comparability over time. Adding a grade 10 at GCSE and an A** at A-level could allow for more differentiation, but would permanently move the ‘old’ standard.

The second option is to try to revert to the old standard. This presents its own challenges, not least that the learning of the 2022 and subsequent cohorts will still have been heavily affected by the pandemic. This could be offset by tapering back from the 2021 or 2020 standard to the 2019 standard over several years. There is some precedent for this, albeit on a much smaller scale, in the way Ofqual proposed tackling harsh grading standards in modern foreign languages and in the way standards were realigned between legacy linear and modular maths GCSEs when they became out of kilter.

The chief downside, as Ofqual has recognised, is that this risks further breaking the link between students’ actual performance and the grades they receive. Another issue is that exams won’t be the same in 2022 as they were in 2019, with DfE and Ofqual intending to introduce changes such as advance notice of topics and greater optionality to help compensate students for lost learning. This means there’s really no way of directly relating the standard back to 2019. Standard setting next year will be, by definition, arbitrary to some extent.

Compounding this is the lack of exam data from 2020 and 2021, which would normally be used in standard setting in future years. Standards are normally tweaked each year using prior attainment data for each cohort, so that a more able cohort receives more top grades. But the cancellation of exams means there is no GCSE data to use in A level standard setting in 2022 or 2023, and no KS2 data to use for GCSE grading in 2025 and 2026. While the National Reference Tests could help at GCSE, there’s no obvious solution for A level.

It’s clear that there are potential disadvantages to past or future cohorts whatever decisions are made. Meanwhile, however, some vocational qualifications with a more nuanced approach to assessment have shown a striking consistency of standards.

That’s why, as policymakers grapple with the unenviable task of restoring standards, they must also take this opportunity to consider whether the structure of GCSEs and A levels should evolve, so that in future standards don’t rest solely on a final exam.

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