Comparable outcomes won’t help all pupils in 2021, admits Ofqual

Applying comparable outcomes to exam results in 2021 will not be enough to compensate for learning loss for all pupils, Ofqual has said, admitting it would only be a “partial compensation strategy”.

The exams regulator has published research today on maintaining standards and the so-called “sawtooth effect” – which describes when outcomes dip following changes to qualifications.

Although Ofqual’s latest research focuses mainly on the impact of qualifications reform, it states that “very similar considerations arise” from the Covid-19 pandemic, “especially the need to be fair to candidates”.

The research found there was a “strong argument” in favour of applying comparable outcomes next year, but warned its impact would be limited.

“Unfortunately, whereas all learners will be affected in a similar way by a qualification reform, the same will not be true for Covid-19.

“It will not be possible to compensate for learning loss in 2021 where this affects some learners far more than others. There is still a case for applying the comparable outcomes principle, albeit only as a partial compensation strategy.”

Ofqual uses comparable outcomes to ensure that results are “to be fair to cohorts of candidates who, through no fault of their own, end up achieving lower levels of attainment than previous ones”. The regulator said in its research that this was “just as relevant to a pandemic period as to a period of qualification reform”.

This year, grades were inflated following a U-turn by the government which saw centre-assessment grades handed to pupils instead of calculated grades. For example, the proportion of grades 7 to 9 handed out to GCSE pupils rose from 21.9 per cent in 2019 to 27.6 per cent in 2020.

Schools are currently waiting to hear more from the government and Ofqual about how they will try to make exams fair for all pupils next summer.

The Sunday Times reported that schools could be asked to record the amount of lesson time missed by pupils in order to help universities lower entry requirements for the hardest-hit.

The government is due to set out its plans this week, the paper reported.

In a recent letter to headteachers, Stacey said Ofqual was “very focused” on the issue of lost learning, and said “various organisations” were “making every effort to measure it”.

She added that although some students were doing “extremely well”, others “will inevitably be falling behind despite the best efforts of schools and colleges, and government”.

“Please be assured that we do not assume that all students will have the opportunity to be equally well-prepared to face external examinations in summer 2021,” she added.

Stacey said it was “enormously difficult” to allow for lost learning at an individual level through exams, but that “grading standards to be set for the whole series can go some way to recognise lost learning at national level”. The Ofqual chief has already signalled “more generous” will be awarded next year.

She also outlined measures being looked-at by the regulator to make the prospect of exams “less daunting than usual”.

As well as formula sheets for science subjects and more multiple-choice questions in some subjects, which Stacey has already talked about publicly, she told heads other options include whether “more time should be allowed for certain papers, or the ramping up of demand (question difficulty) could be more sensitive in some papers, to put more anxious/least prepared students more at ease”.

However, she said none of these options was “straightforward”, and all involved “some compromise over technical validity”.

“But we are exploring them subject by subject, to see what can feasibly be done, in these exceptional times and in the interest of this year’s students.”


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