The starting position for the UK government when it comes to the pandemic and education has been that we should pretend, as far as possible, that nothing has changed. Hence academics continue to teach in person, even as the coronavirus races through undergraduate populations. This week, in that vein, they announced A-levels and GCSE exams would go ahead in England in 2021. This strikes me as an error.
A high-stakes exam series is a dangerous thing to run during a lethal pandemic. We are talking about 16- to 18-year-olds: people who have proved eminently capable of spreading the disease. And we want pupils and teachers to be able to self-isolate without any penalty. The educational benefits would need to be strong to justify the risk that exams would represent. I am not clear they are.
Start at the top: an exam measures an entrant’s ability to cram a wedge of information and hit a mark scheme. The process is intended to be a means of measuring a candidate’s recall of a subject on a given exam day.
But people outside schools use exam grades for something else. We outsiders use them to identify people who will do well in a given subject in future years. To use the jargon, we use grades for their "predictive validity". We rely on GCSEs and A-levels to find students who will be "good at maths" or "good at history" at higher levels.
You can see this in university behaviour. They have fiercely resisted attempts to get involved in determining the content of these exams, despite repeated entreaties from government to do so. But Cambridge did attack the government about the abolition of the old AS-level because it had good predictive validity. And when exams are changed, grades are changed or new qualifications introduced, they are checked over to see how well they predict future success.
There are always issues with using exams in this way: poorer pupils need to have a greater aptitude for the same subject to get the same grades as richer ones. We have (imperfect) processes that attempt to correct for that. The problem we have this year is that the amount of noise in the results may be so horrifically high that we cannot work out how to read the results:
- Since March, when the schools shut, there has been just over one month or so of normal-ish tuition. What pupils have received has been wildly variable.
- The crisis is not over. Schools in areas with higher prevalence will be more seriously disrupted by the virus. A child whose family or class self-isolate will, similarly, suffer privations which others in the same class will be spared. Right now, one in five schools is teaching some classes or year groups remotely because of outbreaks.
While we can run exams this summer which will accurately measure what each entrant knows on exam day about a domain of knowledge, we cannot run exams that will have robust validity. The noise from the crisis may overwhelm any signal. The top students may just have had a lucky pandemic.
Still, one group of educationalists has expressed the view that exams must go ahead, via a letter to the Telegraph. Such is their iron certainty, they also specify how many As and A*s should be awarded (there is no virus deadly enough to make a certain type of British teacher stop thinking grade inflation is the real peril).
They do call for moderation in favour of children who have suffered particularly from the pandemic. But they would repeat the error of this past summer: the information required to do this does not exist. How can they adjust for the fact that one pupil shared a laptop with siblings over the summer, say?
This will not work. So whatever grade distribution we aim for, we are likely to end up with a barrel-load more grade inflation. Issuing a child too low a grade is a non-trivial error. So we will probably respond by boosting grades. It is entirely possible we will end up in the same type of crisis in 2021 as we had in 2020.
So how about something like this: prepare to abandon mandatory exams for the departing cohorts this year. If they must have grades, get their schools to issue them using different grades - perhaps on a pass/merit/distinction basis, so they cannot be compared to other years. Change the qualification name, perhaps. This would help us in several ways.
First, rather than trying to figure out how to robustly say who would deserves an A*, we can choose new awarding criteria that can be assessed by teachers without exams.
Second, you can be generous without worrying about grade inflation. You can't get any inflation in a time series with one data point.
Third, for the qualification-holder, it is easier to explain "my A-level looks weird because it’s a pandemic A-level - you can google it” than it is to convince someone that your D in maths was down to the pandemic.
And, finally - most importantly! - this process would be honest: it does not wish away our problems. If you cannot issue a grade with the same properties as in previous years, do not pretend to. We want outsiders to treat these A-levels differently, and changing the grading forces them to.
Indeed, shifting away from normal grades would be a good idea, even if we do have exams.
The loss of a terminal exam might hurt school discipline. But schools will still have control of issuing certificates. And it may, in any case, be that the exams become low-stakes exam either way. Universities and colleges would be daft to make offers conditional on getting certain grades when no-one knows how the grades will be distributed.
There are lots of downsides to this plan: there will be losers, Without data from the A-level and GCSE, some students will start on inappropriate courses at universities and colleges. We will need to deal with that. Some students will have insufficient subject knowledge to progress. But all institutions will need to admit people who are less prepared than normal. That is why two experienced vice-chancellors have already proposed abandoning the A-level for this year - and using the extra time in the school year to help students catch up.
Robust public exams are a good thing. The GCSE, in particular, is a qualification worth preserving. But that is precisely why I would pause for this year. Because nothing will do more damage to the qualification system than pretending nothing has changed and plunging into a second year of exam disasters.
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