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@CommonsEd report on @Ofqual's exam cancellations and calculated grades 

The Education Committee publishes its report today (11 Jul): Getting the grades they've earned: Covid-19: the cancellation of exams and 'calculated' grades.

The report is part of the Committee’s work examining the effect of COVID-19 on education and children’s services and follows the cancellation of this summer’s national exams.

Young people risk missing out on deserved results in this year’s system for awarding grades, MPs warn, the report makes recommendations relating to the calculated grades system, the role of Ofqual and the impact on disadvantaged groups.

Pupils could miss out on the exam results they deserve this summer as the system for awarding and moderating grades is at risk of inaccuracy and bias against young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, MPs say.

The Education Committee's report acknowledges the swift response of the exam regulator Ofqual and the Government in rising to the immense challenge of devising alternative arrangements for awarding grades after the cancellation of national exams due to the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers have also done their very best in exceptional circumstances to provide grades for their pupils.

The report finds however that this year's system raises three significant concerns:

1. Fairness:

  1. Bias - The Committee received numerous submissions on the potential for unconscious bias to affect calculated grades, outlining how particular groups, including pupils from low-income backgrounds, black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) pupils, and pupils with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), could be adversely affected.
  2. Ofqual's standardisation model aims to adjust grades to ensure they are broadly in line with previous years. However, there are concerns about the risks of using historic data, which might not be fair for newer schools, or for improving and turnaround schools which are on an upward trajectory.
  3. The appeals system favours the 'well-heeled and sharp-elbowed' who know how to navigate the system. The criteria of bias and discrimination set out by Ofqual will be incredibly hard for individual students to ascertain and to prove. After pressure from the Committee, Ofqual have agreed to a helpline but this does not go far enough to level the playing field.

Pupils with SEND, or their families, must be able to see the evidence used to calculate their grade. If the right access arrangements were not in place for the work used or if evidence from SEND specialists was not used if appropriate, the pupil should be able to appeal on the basis of malpractice or maladministration.

2. Lack of support for students sitting autumn exams:

The Committee is pleased that dates for the autumn exam series were confirmed on Thursday 9th June, as called for in the report. The Department for Education must now set out how students will be supported with teaching ahead of sitting these exams.

3. Catch-up funding unavailable for post-16 pupils:

The pandemic's impact on learning loss does not stop when pupils turn 16. Post-16 learners, whether they are resitting key English and Maths GCSEs, or preparing to sit final exams before entering higher education or the workplace, deserve proper catch-up support. The Government must extend catch-up funding to include disadvantaged post-16 pupils to ensure this is not a lost generation.

Sector Response

Robert Halfon 100x100Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Committee, said:

"The cross-party committee recognises the enormous work clearly undertaken by the Department for Education and Ofqual during the coronavirus pandemic and accepts that no system developed for awarding grades will be perfect.

"However, we have serious worries about the fairness of the model developed by Ofqual. There is a risk it will lead to unfair bias and discrimination against already disadvantaged groups and we are far from convinced that the appeal system, which will be more important than ever this year, will be fair. The appeals process seems to favour the well-heeled and sharp-elbowed and there is the potential for the system to resemble the Wild West of appeals with different systems used by different exam boards.

"The lack of guaranteed support from the DfE for pupils and students doing autumn exams means there isn't a level playing field for those students. The absence of a post 16 catch up fund exacerbates these problems.

"We urge Ofqual to be fully transparent about their standardisation model and develop a state-of-the-art appeals system that is genuinely fair to all students whatever their background. There is still hope that all young people will get what they've earnt but Ofqual and the Government must act now so this generation can go on to flourish in their future work and education."

mary boustedDr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said:

"Faced with the disruption to this year’s GCSE and A level exams, Ofqual was left with very little option other than to award grades this year based on teacher judgement and historical data on school performance in these qualifications. 

"GCSE and A level qualifications are over reliant on exams. If these cannot be taken, because of a pandemic, then exam boards need to use other evidence on which to base pupils’ grades. 

"Any sensible qualification system would draw from a range of evidence, including teacher assessment and extended pupil projects. If this had been in place this year, there would be less concern on the part of the Education Select Committee, and parents and pupils, about the awarding of grades this year. 

"'The Education Select Committee is right to be concerned about the potential for already disadvantaged pupils to be disproportionately negatively affected by Ofqual’s system of calculating grades this year.  Ofqual must respond to the Select Committee’s concerns, showing how the processes they adopt for this year will not discriminate against pupils who already struggle to realise their potential in our education system."  

tom bewick 100x100Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) comments:

“The Federation welcomes this critical report from a cross party group of MPs. When I gave evidence to the Education Select Committee, chaired by Robert Halfon MP, I made it clear that awarding bodies and the examination boards have pulled out all the stops to implement and comply with, in effect, a parallel system of regulation this summer, in order to ensure every learner gets the qualifications they need to progress.

“We welcome the acknowledgment and support of the committee, recommending that, the Department for Education should make grant funding available to those awarding bodies that have incurred additional net costs to implement the extraordinary regulatory framework. We shall continue to discuss these matters with the Secretary of State and officials over the summer.”

Kate Green MP 100x100Education Committee’s report show that the calculated grades system risks ‘inaccuracy and bias’ against disadvantaged groups, said, Kate Green MP, Labour’s Shadow Education Secretary:

“The Government must ensure that this year’s assessments are fair, accessible, and accountable.

“Labour has argued for years that predicted grades already create significant challenges for disadvantaged students, and without fair standardisation and appeals many more students could be unfairly affected by calculated grades.

“The Government and Ofqual must urgently act to ensure that young people from ethnic minority and disadvantaged backgrounds do not lose out under this system.”

Getting the grades they've earned

This report examines the fairness, transparency and accessibility of this year’s exam arrangements. As we took evidence and asked questions, these were the three guiding principles against which we scrutinised Ofqual’s and the Department’s decisions. Our report considers arrangements for GCSEs and A levels, as well as vocational and technical qualifications.

Pupils up and down the country have worked hard to prepare for their exams, and we understand their immense disappointment at the news that exams would be cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The Department and Ofqual acted swiftly to devise alternative arrangements so that pupils can be awarded grades and move on to the next step of their lives. Ofqual in particular should be commended for stepping up to the immense challenge of devising these exceptional arrangements.

Pupils will carry these qualifications with them for their entire lives. Their calculated grades must be accurate. But we have concerns that the system described by Ofqual as the “fairest possible in the circumstances” could be unfair for groups including disadvantaged pupils, BAME pupils, children looked after, and pupils with SEND.

We commend teachers for their hard work and professionalism in making difficult judgements about grades and ranking, and we note that they are working within the system designed by Ofqual. Exam boards will standardise grades using a model devised by Ofqual. Standardisation is a process applied to the calculated grades submitted by schools and colleges to ensure consistency. Standardisation draws on multiple evidence sources to determine whether calculated grades are more severe or generous than expected. As a result of standardisation, calculated grades may be adjusted, so that the grades pupils ultimately receive may be different to the centre-assessed grades submitted by schools and colleges.

Given the potential risks of bias, inaccuracy and grade inflation, it is clear that standardisation will play a crucial role in ensuring fairness. We call on Ofqual to make a transparency guarantee—a commitment to publishing details of its standardisation model immediately. Ofqual should not be afraid of scrutiny or open debate over whether its model offers the fairest outcome for every pupil and provider.

It is right that pupils should be able to appeal their grade if they believe bias or discrimination has occurred, but Ofqual has not given enough thought on how to make this route accessible to all pupils. Without support, proving bias or discrimination would be an almost impossible threshold for any pupil to evidence. Disadvantaged pupils, and those without family resources or wider support, risk being shut out of this route. Ofqual must urgently publish the evidence thresholds for proving bias and discrimination, clearly setting out what evidence will be required.

At our evidence session with Ofqual, we called for it to provide an advice and appeals helpline for pupils, and we welcome its commitment to do so. This must be free, and staffed by professionals trained to provide gold-standard, step-by-step assistance and advice to pupils about their options.

We strongly welcome the Government’s announcement on funding catch-up tuition for the most disadvantaged pupils. However, the pandemic’s impact on learning loss does not stop when pupils turn 16. We call on the Government to extend this to disadvantaged post-16 pupils, to ensure this group is not left behind as they prepare for their exams. We call on the Department to set out expectations for provision of teaching support for pupils opting for an autumn exam.

Looking ahead to summer 2021, we remain mindful of the immense catch-up programme that will be needed to tackle learning loss. We do not support modifications to these exams, as we believe the 2021 cohort of exam-takers would be disadvantaged by a perception that their exams were not as rigorous as those taken by other cohorts. Instead, a short delay—weeks, not months—is the preferable option.

Main recommendations for a fairer, more transparent, and more accessible system:

Fairness

Ofqual must identify whether there is evidence that groups such as BAME pupils, pupils with SEND, children looked after, and FSM eligible pupils have been systematically disadvantaged by calculated grades. If this is the case, Ofqual’s standardisation model must adjust the grades of the pupils affected upwards.

The Government must extend catch-up funding to include disadvantaged post-16 pupils to ensure this is not a lost generation. This should be done by doubling the disadvantage element in the 16–19 funding formula for pupils in Year 12, for at least the next year.

Transparency

Ofqual’s evaluation must include comprehensive data on attainment, by characteristics including gender, ethnicity, SEND, children looked after, and FSM eligibility, providing full transparency on whether there are statistically significant differences between attainment this year compared with previous years.

Ofqual must be completely transparent about its standardisation model and publish the model immediately to allow time for scrutiny.

Ofqual must collect and publish anonymised data at the conclusion of the appeals process on where it received appeals from, including, as a minimum, type of school attended, region, gender, ethnicity, SEND status, children looked after (including children supported by virtual schools), and FSM eligibility.

Accessibility

            Ofqual must urgently publish the evidence thresholds for proving bias or discrimination, clearly setting out what evidence will be required, including example case studies. This must be communicated to parents and pupils in advance of results day.

Ofqual must ensure gold-standard advice and support is easily accessible for all pupils unhappy with their grades. Both the helplines provided by Ofqual and the National Careers Service must be freephone lines. These must both be staffed by dedicated professionals with the training to provide sound and              impartial step-by-step advice and support on options and appeals.

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