Exams 2023

Saved by the bell – but exam reliability questions won’t go away

Ministers and regulators will eventually have to answer to the pressing issue of exam grade reliability, writes Dennis Sherwood

Ministers and regulators will eventually have to answer to the pressing issue of exam grade reliability, writes Dennis Sherwood

7 Aug 2023, 5:00

exam grades

If Ofqual do indeed ‘return to pre-pandemic standards’ this year, the overall exam grade distribution will be back to its 2019 level. The dragon of grade inflation will be vanquished once more.

But another dragon still lurks. The dragon of grade unreliability. That dragon has been around a long time, having first been sighted, out of its cave, by Schools Week on 14 November 2016, and it’s set to emerge once more in a couple of weeks to wreak its annual havoc.

The existence of this particular dragon, however, is hotly denied: witness this testimony given by Ofqual’s chief regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, at a hearing of the Lords education for 11-16-year-olds committee just a few weeks ago on 29 June 2023: ‘I can assure … young people who will receive their grades this summer that they can be relied on, that they will be fair, and that the quality assurance around them is as good as it is possible to be’.

This statement is most comforting. Yes, that dragon is indeed the mythical beast it is meant to be, so perhaps those – like me – who purport that it really exists are just malevolent evil wizards.

In my defence, let me quote another statement, made by a different chief regulator, Dame Glenys Stacey, at a hearing of the Commons education committee on 2 September 2020, namely, that grades ‘are reliable to one grade either way’.

Is the current chief regulator contradicting her predecessor? Are grades ‘reliable to one grade either way’? Or are they ‘reliable and fair’? To me, reliable and trustworthy grades are a public good, and I find the apparent discrepancy between the statements of two chief regulators most disturbing.

In an attempt to resolve this dilemma, Lord Watson of Invergowrie raised the matter at a subsequent hearing of the Lords committee on 13 July 2023, at which the witnesses were Nick Gibb, the minister for school standards, and his senior DfE colleagues, Juliet Chua CB, director general for schools, and Stuart Miller, director of curriculum and general qualifications.

Even Agatha Christie could not have scripted that!

Having quoted both Dame Glenys and Dr Saxton, Lord Watson asked ‘could the reliability of grades be improved?’. This was – I infer – a dignified way of enquiring whether grades are ‘reliable to one grade either way’ or not.

Mr Miller replied: ‘I did watch the session with Dr Saxton, and I think she demurred from commenting on the previous chief regulator’s comment’. Nick Gibb was about to continue – but the division bell rang and everything stopped.

Even Agatha Christie could not have scripted that!

And what a final statement. ‘Demurred’. To check exactly what that means, I looked it up, and discovered ‘show reluctance’. Is the DfE director of curriculum and general qualifications telling the select committee that Ofqual’s current chief regulator is ‘showing reluctance’ in confirming the truth, or otherwise, of a previous chief regulator’s admission that grades ‘are reliable to one grade either way’?

Are they? Or aren’t they?

We should all be told, so I look forward to reading the written answer that Lord Jo Johnson, the committee’s chair, requested before they all rushed away.

If grades are fully reliable and trustworthy, that would be good and the matter is resolved.

But at the moment, the matter is unresolved. And now that parliament is in recess, that written answer will not be available before the house reconvenes on 4 September – after this year’s results are announced.

Talk about being saved by the bell.

As I have mentioned, this dragon has been lying hidden since at least 2016. But perhaps those noble knights on the two select committees – ably supported by some brave journalists – are forcing it into the light.

It won’t be in time to save this year’s students from the its ravages, but maybe next year.

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