In the shadow of the fallout from the qualifications results announced for young people in Scotland earlier this month, and last-minute amendments made by the Welsh and English governments to the awarding of grades, this blog reflects on the steps taken to calculate grades, necessitated by these unprecedented times.
Detailed information is now publicly available to teachers, parents, pupils and other concerned parties on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the Welsh qualifications system, how results will be awarded and the steps being taken to protect the integrity of qualifications in Wales. The national closure of schools has presented serious challenges for the awarding of qualifications and this has been understandably fraught and contentious. However, it has also highlighted key features of the assessment and qualifications system in Wales.
There are legitimate concerns about the effect of awarding qualifications based on grades that have been estimated, rather than assessed in the usual manner. This is not least due to the lack of technical detail provided on the allocation and standardisation of grades. This has led to a lack of total transparency and raises questions about the different outcomes which could be experienced by pupils depending on their background, gender, ethnicity and so on. Developing a system by which grades could be fairly awarded has been an unenviable task, undertaken by government, regulatory bodies and exam boards, and partly implemented by teachers.
Whilst all of the nations in the UK have developed broadly similar approaches to awarding qualifications this year there are crucial differences between the systems across the different nations which mean that the strategies taken have some key differences. What is encouraging for students in Wales is that these may well lead to them receiving fairer grades than their peers in England and Scotland, even before the announcements made the day before results day which provided extra assurances to pupils.
A key difference for those receiving their A level results in Wales today is that their grades will be based, in part, on their performance in the AS examinations that they took last year. This is important as these results provide consistent evidence of prior performance at a similar level, in the same subject for each individual pupil. To calculate A level grades these are combined with information on the relationship between AS and A level results in previous years, along with the grade and ranked placement assigned to pupils by teachers in their school or college. Following yesterday’s announcement from the Welsh Education Minister, should this procedure produce a result that is lower than the grade that the pupil received at AS level, they will receive the higher of the two grades. Pupil’s grades can now only improve from their AS attainment through this system.
The use of school-level standardisation means that some pupils are bound to receive grades different to those that they might have gained had they had the opportunity to sit the exams, even taking into consideration the AS level ‘safety net’. This will mean that some pupils will initially receive lower grades – especially those who are particularly high-achievers in lower performance schools. These will be amended automatically to reflect their AS results, if these were higher. But it does also mean that some may do better. There is no doubt that many A level students across the country will receive grades that are different from those that they might have expected, and those predicted grades they were given last year when applying to university courses. However, it is worth remembering that these predicted grades are often inaccurate and university admissions teams are well-placed to deal with the type of scenario we are now facing.
Although the standardisation procedures put in place mean that pupils’ results this year are still influenced by the performance of their peers – both past and present – the system in place in Wales for A levels (and some GCSEs), whereby exams are sat at intervals through the A level course, does allow for calculations which are based on more recent and relevant attainment of the individual pupils. Importantly, it also means that the yard stick by which calculated grades will be measured (and altered if necessary) comes from recognised and standardised assessment.
Following the last-minute changes to make previous AS level results the minimum grade pupils can receive, it will be interesting to see how many previously calculated grades are altered, and by how far. In broader terms, this brings to the fore questions and considerations about different types of course structures and assessment – modular/unitised (exams at given intervals) versus linear (exams at the end of the course).
More generally, the current situation highlights issues surrounding an arguable over-reliance on examinations as a means of assessment, enhanced by recent and ongoing moves away from non-examination assessment. Our ongoing work in the WISERD Education Data Lab looks at educational outcomes, attainment gaps, school improvement and progression into Higher Education. This year’s need to radically adapt the awarding of grades has brought many of these issues into focus and we will continue to work with the latest data to further explore them over the longer term.
 AS levels were separated from A levels in England in 2015, with England adopting a linear system which means all examinations are sat at the end of the two year course.
About the WISERD Education Data Lab:
WISERD Education Data Lab undertakes independent analysis of administrative education data, survey data and data linkage, alongside knowledge exchange and public dissemination of findings to inform national debate on some of the most contemporary and pressing educational issues facing Wales.
WISERD Education Data Lab is funded by Welsh Government, Economic and Social Research Council (award: ES/012435/1) and Cardiff University.