Readers of my blog based in England may know that due to COVID-19, GCSEs (typically taken at age 16) and A-Levels (age 18) are not going ahead as exams this year. Yesterday, the Office for Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) published a consultation on the methods to be used to ensure fairness in the award of these important qualifications. I intend to respond to this consultation, which is only open for two weeks, and have produced a draft response below. Before I submit it, I would welcome any feedback. Equally, others should feel free to borrow from my response if it helps them.
Centre Assessment Grades
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should incorporate the requirement for exam boards to collect information from centres on centre assessment grades and their student rank order, in line with our published information document, into our exceptional regulatory requirements for this year?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that exam boards should only accept centre assessment grades and student rank orders from a centre when the Head of Centre or their nominated deputy has made a declaration as to their accuracy and integrity?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that Heads of Centre should not need to make a specific declaration in relation to Equalities Law?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that students in year 10 and below who had been entered to complete exams this summer should be issued results on the same basis as students in year 11 and above?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that inappropriate disclosure of centre assessment judgements or rank order information should be investigated by exam boards as potential malpractice?
Neither Agree not Disagree
Do you have any comments about our proposals for centre assessment grades?
- While a separate Equalities Law declaration is not necessary, the Head of Centre should be able to declare that they have taken equality law into consideration as part of their declaration.
- Ofqual should liaise with the National Governance Association and with teaching unions to provide guidance to governing bodies and staff on appropriate challenge and support to schools in order to ensure processes underlying Head of Centre declaration are appropriately evidenced.
- While I understand and support the motivation for labelling inappropriate disclosure of centre assessments as malpractice, care must be taken and guidance given to centres over what is deemed “inappropriate”. I would not want to be in the situation where a teacher is unable to calm a student in a way they normally would, for example by telling them that “I can’t see any way you won’t get a Grade 7”. There may be an equalities implication for those students suffering from extreme anxiety, and this should be considered when drawing up guidance for centres.
- While I accept that there is little time to provide detailed guidance for centres to follow when drawing up rank-order lists, the publication of examples of good practice may help centres, and I would recommend this is considered.
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should incorporate into the regulatory framework a requirement for all exam boards to issue results in the same way this summer, in accordance with the approach we will finalise after this consultation, and not by any other means?
Do you have any comments about our proposal for the issuing of results?
Impact on Students
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should only allow exam boards to issue results for private candidates for whom a Head of Centre considers that centre assessment grades and a place in a rank order can properly be submitted?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that the arrangements we put in place to secure the issue of results this summer should extend to students in the rest of the UK?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that the arrangements we put in place to secure the issue of results this summer should extend to all students, wherever they are taking the qualifications?
Neither agree nor disagree
Do you have any comments about the impact of our proposals on any particular groups of students?
- Unfortunately, I see no other option than that proposed for private candidates. However, I am concerned that the definition of “properly” in the criterion given is made much more explicit and in objective terms to the heads of centres.
- I suggest legal advice is sought over the enforceability of arrangements within centres outside the UK, in particular over the implications of breach of a head of centre’s declaration before proceeding with treating them the same as those within the UK.
- I am concerned over the impact of the proposed arrangements for some groups of students who may be differentially affected by the change in routine due to lockdown, e.g. those with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC). In order to be as fair as possible to these students, I suggest that explicit guidance be given to centres emphasising that centres are free to disregard any dip in attainment since lockdown when coming up with their rank-order list, and again emphasising their duties under equalities legislation.
Statistical standardisation of centre assessment grades
To what extent do you agree or disagree with the aims outlined above?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that using an approach to statistical standardisation which emphasises historical evidence of centre performance given the prior attainment of students is likely to be fairest for all students?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that the trajectory of centres’ results should NOT be included in the statistical standardisation process?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that the individual rank orders provided by centres should NOT be modified to account for bias regarding different students according to their particular protected characteristics or their socio-economic backgrounds?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should incorporate the standardisation approach into our regulatory framework?
Do you have any comments about our proposals for the statistical standardisation of centre assessment grades?
- I am unclear from the consultation on whether standardisation is to occur on an exam-board basis or across exam boards. If it is on an exam-board basis, it is not clear what will happen when centres have changed exam board over the time window used to judge prior grade distribution at the school, especially if the change is for the first time this year.
- I have several statistical concerns over the proposed methodology, given the level of detail discussed so far. In particular,
(i) there is a recognition that small centres or small cohorts will be difficult to deal with – this is a significant issue, and may be exacerbated depending on the definition of cohort (see #3, below), leading to significant statistical uncertainty;
(ii) it is hugely important to avoid 2020 results being affected by outlier results in previous years. One possibility is to use median results from the previous three years – I would avoid using mean results or a single year’s results.
Given these concerns, my view is that it would be more appropriate to award a “grade range” to students (e.g. “9-7”, which may of course include degenerate ranges like just “7”). This allows statistical uncertainty arising from the various measures integrated into the standardisation algorithm to be explicitly quantified and provide a transparent per-pupil result. It would allow universities and sixth-forms to decide for themselves whether to admit a pupil optimistically, pessimistically or on the basis of the interval midpoint.
- It is unclear from the consultation whether the past grade distributions used will be on a per-subject basis. If not, this is likely to violate proposed Aim 1 of the standardisation process. However, if so, this is likely to result in some very small cohorts for optional subjects at particular centres, so extreme statistical care must be taken in using these cohorts as the basis for grading in 2020. A possible solution us to produce grade ranges, as above.
- From a statistical perspective, estimation of grade distributions at a per-centre level (rather than estimation of mean grade, for example) is fraught with danger and highly sensitive to cohort size. It is very important that you do not consider the empirical frequency distribution of grades in a centre over the last 1,2 or 3 years as the underlying probability distribution but rather as a sample from the latter, using an appropriate statistical method to estimate the distribution from the sample. Such methods would also allow the incorporation of notions of variance, which could be factored into the “grade ranges” for students, explained in #2. As an extreme example: if a centre had no Grade 6’s last year, only 5’s and 7’s, we should not bias our model to no Grade 6’s this year, surely.
- There is an additional option for standardisation, not considered in the consultation document, which is less subject to the statistical problems of distribution estimation. You could extract just one or two parameters from your model (e.g. desired mean, desired standard deviation) and use these to normalise the distribution from each centre, rather than fit the complete distributions. Such aggregate statistics will be less susceptible to variation, especially for smaller cohorts.
- I am unclear how it is possible to award grades to students at centres without any historical outcomes and with no prior attainment data or prior attainment data covering a statistically-insignificant portion of the cohort. For these centres, some form of moderation or relying on Autumn term exam results may be required.
- I am concerned by the statement in the consultation that “we will evaluate the optimal span of historical centre outcomes (one, 2 or 3 years). We will select the approach that is likely to be the most accurate in standardising students’ grades.” There is no discussion of how “most accurate” can be judged; there is no data upon which to make this decision, so I would urge caution and an outlier-rejection strategy (see #2 above).
- While I broadly agree that there is insufficient data upon which to base rank-order modification based on protected characteristics or socio-economic backgrounds, of the three approaches discussed in the consultation document, the “second approach” is currently very vague and needs further refinement before I can offer an opinion on it. I am happy to be contacted for further comment on this in the future.
- I am concerned by the absence of a mechanism to flag unusual rank order differences between subjects in a centre. It should be possible to identify, for example, pupils ranked very high in Subject A and very low in Subject B compared to the typical centile differences in rankings between these subjects, for further investigation by the exam boards. The sensitivity of such a test could be set an appropriate level to the amount of staff time available to investigate.
Appealing the results
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should not provide for a review or appeals process premised on scrutiny of the professional judgements on which a centre’s assessment grades are determined?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should not provide for a student to challenge their position in a centre’s rank order?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should not provide for an appeal in respect of the process or procedure used by a centre?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should provide for a centre to appeal to an exam board on the grounds that the exam board used the wrong data when calculating a grade, and/or incorrectly allocated or communicated the grades calculated?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that for results issued this summer, exam boards should only consider appeals submitted by centres and not those submitted by individual students?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should not require an exam board to ensure consent has been obtained from all students who might be affected by the outcome of an appeal before that appeal is considered?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that exam boards should not put down grades of other students as a result of an appeal submitted on behalf of another student?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that exam boards should be permitted to ask persons who were involved in the calculation of results to be involved in the evaluation of appeals in relation to those results?
To what extent do you agree or disagree that exam boards should be able to run a simplified appeals process?
Neither agree nor disagree
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should not provide for appeals in respect of the operation or outcome of the statistical standardisation model?
To what extent do you agree or disagree with our proposal to make the Exam Procedures Review Service (EPRS) available to centres for results issued this summer?
Do you have any comments about our proposals for appealing results?
- I disagree with the absence of an appeal procedure against centre procedure. While recognising the difficulties faced by centres and the exceptional circumstances, there is an element of natural justice that must be maintained. Without such an appeal process, there is no safeguard against centres using completely inappropriate mechanisms to derive grade and rank orders, beyond the signed statement from the head of centre. While the consultation suggests that detailed guidance will not be sent to centres on the procedures they should follow, it is reasonable to expect a centre – if challenged by a sufficient number of candidates – to explain the procedure they did follow, and for an appeal body to find this to be reasonable or unreasonable in the circumstances. The outcome of any successful appeal may have to be the cancelling of all grades in a certain subject at a certain centre, requiring a fall-back to the Autumn 2020 exams, but the mere existence of such a mechanism may help focus centres on ensuring justifiable procedures are in place.
- The consultation document leaves open the question of what role staff of exam boards who were involved in the calculation of results would have in appeals. It appears proper for them to be involved in providing evidence to an independent appeals committee, but not to form such a committee.
An Autumn exam series
To what extent do you agree or disagree that entries to the autumn series should be limited to those who were entered for the summer series, or those who the exam board believes have made a compelling case about their intention to have entered for the summer series (as well as to students who would normally be permitted to take GCSEs in English language and mathematics in November)?
To which qualifications the emergency regulations will apply
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should apply the same provisions as GCSE, AS and A level qualifications to all Extended Project Qualifications and to the Advanced Extension Award qualification?
Do you have any comments about the qualifications to which the exceptional regulatory measures will apply?
Building the arrangements into our regulatory framework
To what extent do you agree or disagree that we should confirm that exam boards will not be permitted to offer opportunities for students to take exams in May and June 2020?
To what extent do you agree or disagree with our proposals that exam boards will not be permitted to offer exams for the AEA qualification or to moderate Extended Project Qualifications this summer?
Do you have any comments about our proposals for building our arrangements into our regulatory framework?
I have sympathy with the proposals in this section, but they need to be balanced against the harm done to those candidates who will be unable to use centre-based assessments and against Ofqual’s duties under the Equalities legislation, given that this may disproportionately affect disabled students (see pp.51-52 of the consultation document.) On balance, it may be better to leave this as an operational decision between exam boards and exam centres to allow exams in May and June, if possible, only for these students.
Equality impact assessment
Are there other potential equality impacts that we have not explored? What are they?
As previously noted, I am concerned over the impact of the proposed arrangements for some groups of students who may be differentially affected by the change in routine due to lockdown, e.g. those with Autistic Spectrum Conditions (ASC). In order to be as fair as possible to these students, I suggest that explicit guidance be given to centres emphasising that centres are free to disregard any dip in attainment since lockdown when coming up with their rank-order list, and again emphasising their duties under equalities legislation.
We would welcome your views on how any potential negative impacts on particular groups of students could be mitigated:
If Ofqual were to adopt a “grade range” approach, outlined above, then the quoted research into the reliability of predicted GCSE, AS and A-levels prior to 2015 could be used to inform the degree of uncertainty in the range, mitigating the impact on particular groups of students.