There is still no clear answer to this question and there won’t be one until Ofqual announces its methodology and weighting. This is currently scheduled to happen on 20th August, one week after A’ level results on 13th August.
These observations are based on remarks by Barnaby Lenon, ex-Head of Harrow School and current Chair of the Independent Schools Council, at the Festival of Higher Education organised by University of Buckingham on 7th and 8th July 2020. He covered a huge amount of ground very quickly and it is possible that I might have made minor errors where my analysis is based on an interpretation of his presentation.
There were many other interesting sessions at the festival and I recommend you visit the website where they should be available to download shortly.
How will A’ levels be awarded?
The five criteria on which A’ levels will be awarded are known but their relative weighting has not yet been revealed. The complexity, or indeed impossibility, of sensibly combining these factors is the main reason why this year’s A’ level results cannot be treated as real even though the qualifications themselves are. This year it is unfair for universities to regard a student’s A’ level grades as fair. They may be correct but this will be as much by accident as design. There is a knock-on effect on GCSE results which will certainly impact on students applying to university in 2022 but I will focus here on A’ levels this year.
The five components of A’ level results in 2020 will be:
- Predicted Grades aka Centre Assessment Grades: These are the grades that students are predicted by their examination centre which in most cases will be their school. These predictions need not be the same as predicted grades supplied to Ucas as part of the university application process in the UK. There are huge reliability issues with predicted grades. Only 21% of students met or exceeded their Ucas predictions last year. Because of this it is likely that Centre Assessment Grades will be given limited weight. It is foreseeable that there will be significant variation between students’ Ucas predictions, their Centre Assessment Grades and their final results. This could cause anger and resentment.
- Rank Order: Within each subject at each centre teachers will be asked to rank all students from best to worst. This ranking is entirely in the gift of schools and will not be challenged by Ofqual.
- Students’ prior attainment at Key Stage 2 (SATs) and Key Stage 4 (GCSEs): This is relatively uncontroversial for those students who have this information. However, if students never took SATs they could be disadvantaged. This is a minor issue when compared to the possibility that students might not have GCSEs. Until two years ago when the reforms of GCSEs were completed, many independent schools in the UK used IGCSE exams instead. These results will not be considered. Also, international students who have arrived in the UK to take their A’ levels will be significantly disadvantaged by this requirement and it is unclear how Ofqual will handle this.
- School Performance in 2017, 2018 and 2019: The grade distribution that a school achieved in these three years will be used to work out the proportion of students within each school who would ordinarily be expected to achieve a particular grade. The Rank Order will determine the grade each student receives. For example, if a school consistently has 20% of it students achieving A*-A in biology, a similar proportion of its candidates in 2020 will be awarded the same grade.
- Comparable Outcomes: This measure looks at the number of students in each subject who achieved each grade across the entire country. The grade distribution is “set in stone” so if 25% of students received a B last year in maths, 25% of students this year will receive a B in maths. This measure is used in normal years to determine grade distribution and is relatively uncontroversial in and of itself.
Aside from the issues highlighted above there are some additional problems with all of these criteria.
- It is estimated that if A’ level grades were awarded on the basis of predictions without reference to Comparable Outcomes this would immediately lead to 10% grade inflation (according to research from FFT Education Datalab). Students are likely to receive final grades that are below their expectations and this could lead to appeals and challenges.
- The awarding of a grade when all criteria are available is likely to be most accurate in larger schools in subjects taken by a large number of students and where that school’s performance has been similar in each of the last three years.
- A’ level grades in less common subjects are likely to be inaccurate. For example, if five students at a school took Russian A’ level last year and all received A*s, any student taking Russian at that school this year is likely to receive an A*. If all received Es, that same student would probably receive an E. This is completely untethered from the ability of the student and the effort they might have put into their studies and, as a result, hardly a fair indication of their abilities. Ofqual has suggested that it will be sensitive to small group bias but how?
- A related problem will impact on good students at underperforming schools. If a school has consistently achieved at a level below that of its most capable student in 2020, that student might find his or her grades are lower than they would otherwise have been. Ofqual has indicated that on no occasion will schools be allowed to intercede on behalf of students who might be caught out in this way.
- Some candidates will not be able to provide the information required to receive a grade this year. If there is no record of their prior attainment, this cannot be taken into consideration. If they are taking exams at an external centre, who can provide a prediction and in what way would a class rank be meaningful? For such a student, previous school performance might also be of limited relevance. This will have a huge impact on home-schooled students and those who are resitting A’ levels as an external candidate. These candidates will possibly not receive an A’ level this summer and will have to take the autumn exams (see below).
- There are an estimated 34 schools in the UK that cannot provide the required information for prior attainment and school performance because they are new. Unless allowances are made, their students will leave school without A’ levels.
There is plentiful scope for things to go wrong so what rights will students and parents have to challenge the results if they feel they are unfair or if they present an obstacle to a student’s onwards journey into higher education?
There are no grounds to appeal the results unless there is a clear administrative error or the wrong data has been used to calculate an assessment. If the process has been followed correctly then all grades will stand. For students who are unhappy with their results there will be an opportunity to sit exams in autumn of 2020 in those subjects where they feel their grades were unfair. If a student takes this opportunity and their examined grade is below their assessed grade they will be allowed to keep the assessed grade although they would certainly hope that any difference between the two would be in the opposite direction. There are no dates set for these exams yet but is to be envisaged that they would happen about 6-8 weeks after A’ level results day. As students might possibly not have undertaken any study or revision since March this year, how likely is it that students could prepare themselves for these exams in such a limited timeframe? What resources within schools would be available to them bearing in mind teachers’ workloads in preparing for full-scale reopening this September?
Assuming the exams in autumn happen as anticipated, students who improve their grades sufficiently might be in a position to start university in the UK from January 2021 but there are no guarantees on offer. I would imagine this would depend very much on new enrolments this October and whether these are significantly below expectations.
What does all this mean to admissions officers in international universities?
- There is no comparison between a student who receives AAA this year and one who receives AAA in an ordinary year.
- The reliability of the grades that a student receives will depend on the size of their school and the number of students in the whole country who have taken the same A’ level subjects as them.
- The grades that a student receives might actually be determined by the hard work of previous cohorts of students at their school and lazy students might find themselves doing better than expected or vice versa.
- Students at schools that do not neatly fit in to the assessment criteria or students who have a non-standard pathway through UK schools will be severely disadvantaged unless some, as yet unknown, adjustment can be made by Ofqual.
As a result, strictly enforcing entry requirements defined in grades makes almost no sense this year. It is probable that British universities will admit students who do not receive the grades they expected if they possibly can. The sooner we can accept that this year’s students have A’ levels and move on the better.
A far bigger issue, in my opinion, is that this year’s students have probably done no work since March; they have definitely missed out on the intensive deep learning that comes from exam revision. Reintegrating them into the world of academic learning is likely to be a challenge and it might be difficult for this year’s students to hit the ground running. Getting them up to speed as quickly as possible will be desirable and perhaps university teaching and assessment will need to adapt to make sure this happens. It is likely that British-educated students this year will benefit from a rude awakening upon arrival at university, particularly if they find themselves in classes with students who actually had to take end of high school exams in their own countries.