Students won’t be sitting exams this year because that wouldn’t be fair after all the disruption they’ve experienced since the start of the pandemic. Instead, GCSE, A and AS level students will get grades based on their teachers’ assessments of them.

But how will it work in practice? We put your questions to Cath Jadhav, Director of Standards and Comparability at the exams, assessments and qualifications regulator Ofqual.

What is teacher assessment and how will it work in GCSE, AS and A levels this summer?

Cath Jadhav (CJ): In summer 2021, teachers will judge the standard that a student is working at, based on a range of evidence produced by that student over their course of study, and covering only the content they have been taught.

Teachers will make the initial judgements and they will then be subject to internal quality assurance within the school/college, and grades will be signed off by the head of department and head of centre – usually the headteacher or principal -before they are submitted to exam boards.

In simple terms, a GCSE student who is performing consistently at a grade 6 standard, should be awarded a grade 6. It should be no harder or easier to achieve a particular grade than it is in a normal year when examinations take place.

So what are teachers basing their grades on if pupils aren’t doing exams?

CJ: Teachers will base their judgement on students’ performance on a range of evidence, which could include mock exams, non-exam assessment (coursework) in some subjects, as well as other assessments done in class. Students will only be assessed on content that they have been taught.

We are asking teachers to take an evidence-based approach, so that students, their parents and carers, and all those who use the grades awarded this summer can see how their final grade has been arrived at and know that they have been determined objectively.

To that end, students will be told by their school or college what evidence is going to be used to determine their grades, and they will have the opportunity to raise any genuine and valid concerns. There is scope to ensure reasonable adjustments or requests for special consideration can be accommodated, but there is not scope for negotiation about the evidence used. Awarding organisations will support schools and colleges to make their grading decisions independently.

Does that mean my child won’t sit any exams or tests at all?

CJ: Schools/colleges can choose to use externally set tasks, tests and other approaches to generating evidence. Students will be told what pieces of work or assessment will be used to provide evidence for a particular grade.

How are you going to make sure the grades are consistent between schools? What if one school is really generous while another is very harsh?

CJ: We fully support our teachers and expect that all teaching staff will use their professional judgement. They are well placed to assess the standard their students are performing at. Teachers are professionals – they would not wish to give a student a higher grade than that at which they are performing. It is in no-one’s interests for a student to achieve a grade that puts them onto a course or into a role for which they are ill-equipped.

Teachers’ judgements will be subject to internal quality assurance which will include internal standardisation (so that, for example, two geography teachers make consistent judgements about their respective classes), and grades will be signed off by the head of department and the head of centre. Exam boards will also carry out quality assurance – reviewing the overall approach being taken by each school/college and also, for a sample of centres, reviewing a sample of the grading judgements made. Schools/colleges will be more likely to have their grading judgements reviewed if their results in 2021 are considerably higher or lower than in previous years when exams were held (that is, 2017, 2018 and 2019).

The Joint Council for Qualifications has published extensive guidance for teachers on grading, and we recently published guidance on making objective judgements.

How will grades this year compare to other years?

CJ: Schools/colleges have been asked to judge the standard of students’ work against the standard set in previous years. They will be judging students only on content that they have been taught, to address the disruption that schools and colleges have experienced. This could mean that overall results are higher or lower than previous years.

Remember, the means of determining grades in 2021 is different from normal, so we fully anticipate that the overall grade distribution will look different from 2020 and previous years.

Will the grades take into account the fact that children have spent differing amounts of time out of school over the last year?

CJ: This year, what part of the syllabus has been covered, and how effectively teachers have been able to teach it, varies on an altogether different scale from what we find in a normal year. Some students experienced significant disruption to their education, others experienced less disruption. The ability to provide quality remote education, and to receive and engage with it, has varied from area to area, from school to school, and even from student to student, and family to family, within schools and colleges.

The only sensible and fair thing to do in these circumstances is to ask teachers to make a holistic assessment of their students’ achievement against what has actually been covered, and that is what we are doing.

And what about the fact that the last year has been pretty traumatic for many children – is that being taken into consideration?

CJ: Students will be assessed only on what they have been taught, so students who have missed more teaching than others will be assessed on a narrower range of content. Where a school/college believes that a student has suffered misfortune that might have affected their performance in an assessment, they have discretion to take account of that in coming to their judgement.

If we don’t agree with the grade my child receives, can we appeal?

CJ: Students will be able to appeal their grade if they believe an error has been made, or they do not believe it is a fair reflection of their work. Appeals will be submitted to the exam boards by schools and colleges, on behalf of their students. Exam boards will publish more details on that shortly.

It’s worth noting that many of the normal issues that lead to appeals will not apply this year. Students will receive grades based on teacher judgement, so there won’t be the usual pattern of schools/colleges applying for reviews of marking on the basis that students are one or two marks below a grade boundary. There also won’t be grade boundaries this year as there are no exams.

Teachers will share with students which pieces of work they will base their assessment judgements on, before the recommended grades are submitted in June. This means there should be fewer surprises come results days in August.

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