36% of A-levels in England downgraded by Ofqual algorithm

With all exams cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak, the government has pledged to ‘soften’ grade requirements to help mitigate backlash from disappointed students

Over 100,000 UK students will receive downgraded A-level results today, as exam regulator Ofqual‘s decision to moderate via a computer algorithm demotes 36% of awarded grades.

Ofqual also confirmed this morning that 3.5% of results have fallen more than two grades when compared with teacher predictions.
The regulator said that it would publish its moderation algorithm, which is expected to run to 150 pages.
Early this morning, The Times reported that Ofqual faces a second legal challenge, as west London-based A-level student Curtis Parfitt-Ford claims that data protection law made clear that critical grading decisions could not be made by a computer program.
Official figures show that 9% of entries were A*, up from 7.8% in 2019; 27.9% A* or A, up from 25.5%; and 78.4% were A* to C, up from 75.8%. Girls have once again outperformed boys, except in the number receiving A*s. The university admissions service, Ucas, revealed this morning that 30.2% (210,260 students) of all 18 year olds have been accepted to study at a higher education provider – including a record number of the most disadvantaged students.  

Controversy continues over the way results have been decided this year and headteachers are angry at the use of mock exam grades.

Following the school and college closures caused by the coronavirus outbreak, grades have been determined in line with teacher predictions. The news falls after schools minister Nick Gibb yesterday announced that two in five grades submitted by teachers have been altered by the moderation process, a move that could leave thousands of high-flying students feeling deflated.

The moderation process means 36% of entries were downgraded by one grade, 3.5% by downgraded by two grades or more and 2% were upgraded, Ofqual confirmed this morning.

A similar process of grade moderation in Scotland resulted in 124,000 grade recommendations being lowered by the Scottish Qualifications Agency (SQA). In a dramatic U-turn, Scotland’s education minister, John Swinney, said all downgraded awards would be withdrawn and re-issued based solely on teacher or lecturer judgement.

Education secretary Gavin Williamson announced on Tuesday night that pupils in England could use their mock exam results if they feel their calculated grades are wrong – a move swiftly met with dismay by many figures within the education sector.

Students will now be allowed to use a valid mock result through the appeals process, by notifying their school or college.

Mr Williamson described the move as a “triple lock” process: students could accept their calculated grade, appeal to receive a valid mock result, or sit exams in the autumn. All outcomes will hold the same value for universities, colleges and employers, he said.

The last-minute U-turn has drawn criticism from Universities UK, the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL),the headteachers’ union.

Professor Julia Buckingham, president of UUK, said the last-minute policy change “presents a number of challenges for universities” who are now “seeking urgent clarification from the Department for Education on a range of issues”.

She told students on the eve of A-level results “to carry on as planned” and “don’t panic”.

UUK members “will be as flexible as they can in these unusual circumstances”, she added.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the ASCL, said headteachers lacked information about how the appeals process would work.

“I think there will be a sense from school leaders of us being put in a position of being on the back foot. I think there will be very deep frustration around that on a day which is always emotionally highly charged, but it’s likely to be more so because of this announcement,” Mr Barton said.

“I think there will be a sense from school leaders of us being put in a position of being on the back foot” – Geoff Barton

“The government is in danger of creating confusion for students, parents and universities by talking of a ‘triple lock’, including the implied option for students to choose to receive their ‘mock’ grade. In fact, the use of a mock grade seems to only be part of an appeals process, rather than being a guarantee,” said EPI’s chief executive, David Laws.

“Given the inconsistent ways in which they are used by schools, offering a mock grade option also does very little to solve the question of fairness. Ofqual now faces the huge task of attempting to set what the standards for a valid mock result will be,” he added.

The NUS national president has lobbied the government in Westminster to follow the example set by its counterpart in Holyrood and abandon the moderation process entirely. Although she welcomed the announcement that autumn retakes would be free, Larissa Kennedy concluded: “The rest of the triple lock approach is wrong.”

Gill Burbridge, principal of Leyton Sixth Form College, revealed that 47% of grades submitted by her college had been lowered. “We were really rigorous in our standardisation process. We knew that we would be judged in relation to our three-year averages so we made sure that the centre’s test grades were in keeping with that three-year average. So I am, frankly, appalled,” she said.

“We knew that we would be judged in relation to our three-year averages so we made sure that the centre’s test grades were in keeping…I am, frankly, appalled” – Gill Burbridge

The head of Reigate Grammar School, Shaun Fenton, described A-level results this year as “an omnishambles”.

He said the biggest mistake was not incorporating scope for an appeals process from the beginning, but he also blamed last minute U-turns for undermining confidence in the system.

“Frankly, I have little confidence that grades awarded this week will still be the same in a week’s time. A week is a long time. This plays havoc with university decisions; our students deserve better,” he said, adding: “There may be some merit in these ideas but who can tell? There are so many voices shouting in the fog.”

“This plays havoc with university decisions; our students deserve better” – Shaun Fenton

He said Ofqual should announce “a generous and significant invitation for a rapid appeals process, on a range of reasonable grounds so that where their generally good systematic review of CAGS has resulted in an unfair result then that result can be reviewed and changed”.

Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Mr Williamson ruled out taking a similar decision to Scotland’s education minister of allowing students to be awarded grades predicted by their teachers. He warned this would inflate grades, “devalue” exam results and harm students’ “future career prospects”.

Mr Williamson apologised to every child for the disruption to their education caused by COVID-19, and admitted there were “things we would take a different approach on”.

Pressure on Williamson mounted after his counterpart in Wales, Kirsty Williams, announced safeguards for student’s A-level grades.

The Welsh education minister, said: “I am giving a guarantee that a learner’s final A-level grade cannot be lower than their AS-grade. If a student receives a final grade tomorrow that is below that of their previous AS grade, then a revised grade will be issued automatically.”

GSA president Jane Prescott urged teachers and students to “stay calm” amid the confusion of last minute changes to the grading procedures for A-levels.

She said the government’s ‘triple lock’ would “only serve to cause more confusion” and demonstrated “a misunderstanding of what mock exams really are”.

She expressed some sympathy with Ofqual who “had to come up with a way of calculating grades that maintains the credibility of such a highly-regarded qualification as the A-level, and are now faced with the added complication of having to build mock exam results into the appeal process”.

“Some students will get the place they want with the grade they receive. They will be able to move forward and get on with their lives. For others, it will be a case of trying to buy time with their chosen universities as they and their schools negotiate this new aspect of the appeals process. Others may be placed straight into Clearing in which case it’s important to act quickly and begin ringing universities as soon as possible for placements this autumn. Teachers will help as much as they can.

“This is going to be an A-level results day like never before” – Jane Prescott

“This is going to be an A-level results day like never before. People will be frustrated, potentially disappointed and for some the knowledge about what happens next is going to be delayed. As difficult as this may be, I would urge students to stay calm, believe in themselves and remember everything they’ve achieved so far, ask their teachers to help them identify the next step and work towards it. This is just the beginning.”

Responding to the news that thousands of students are set to be downgraded, Kate Green MP, Labour’s shadow education secretary, chastised the government’s “chaotic” approach to A-level grading this year.

“Today is always an anxious day for pupils and parents across the country. That anxiety is far worse this year because of the fiasco caused by the Conservative Government,” said Mrs Green.

“I wholeheartedly congratulate those young people who have received the grades they deserve after working so hard. But across the country, many young people will be opening their results today to find grades which undermine their work and their potential. It is a huge injustice that pupils will see their results downgraded just because of their postcode.

“It is a huge injustice that pupils will see their results downgraded just because of their postcode” – Kate Green MP

“Ministers must act urgently to correct the injustice faced by so many young people today. Students must be able to lodge their own appeals if they haven’t got the grade they deserved and admissions teams must be forced to be more flexible. No student should see their dreams slip away because of this government’s inaction.”

In other news: Sex education goes digital as students gear up for unregulated summer fun


1 Comment
  • Anya Smith
    Anya Smith

    I would love to hear how the “standardisation” of exam grades is achieved in normal years. What factors go into OFQUAL’s usual moderation process? Does it in any way tie a student to school performance?

Leave a Reply