Of Mice and Men: When plan A met plan B

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Of Mice and Men: When plan A met plan BOf Mice and Men: When plan A met plan B
Date6th Dec 2021AuthorNick AllenCategoriesPolicy and News

As we move towards the end of the Autumn term we find ourselves with some degree of clarity regarding the plans for awarding in 2022: both Plan A (exams taking place as they would in a normal year with a few adjustments) and Plan B (teacher assessed grades) have now been confirmed.1 The combination of these two plans presents us with a serious challenge. We need somehow to develop a pathway which will enable students to peak for exams in June (Plan A), while simultaneously enabling them to realise their full potential in a series of internal examinations which will provide evidence for an alternative summative judgement (Plan B). These Plan B assessments represent a refinement of the (frankly ludicrously loose) arrangements from 2021, and provide a clear steer regarding the volume of assessment (similar to that students would take in a normal exam series, in a number of different assessments), and the nature of assessment (a much clearer sense that these should be unseen exams, delivered (where possible) in ‘exam-like’ conditions to the whole cohort at the whole time).

As ever the plans seem to have been designed without any real appreciation of the significance of scale. We feel this most acutely when we consider the idea that all students should complete these assessments at the same time, or be assessed using different materials at different times. Delivering an assessment to 400 students who are taught in seven discrete timeslots while ensuring the integrity of the test is a fundamentally different challenge to delivering the same assessment to a single A level class in a small school sixth form. Consider the suggestion that where it is not possible for students to sit an exam at the same time then different assessments could be prepared for different classes. There are sixth form colleges which would need to span seven different teaching blocks for this (and many would need to span five or six). With three assessment points suggested in the guidance, that would mean producing, checking, quality assuring, marking, moderating and merging the outcomes of up to twenty-one different exams. This is far beyond what would be expected of an experienced examining team at an awarding body, and this is something for us to fit in in addition to the day job in what remains a highly challenging and volatile context.

We can’t leave Plan B to chance either, as exams could be cancelled at any point. And it does not have to be a national situation that prompts the triggering of Plan B. If exams cannot take place in a particular area of the country, exams will be cancelled everywhere. There is no end date to the possibility of Plan B, either. It would be helpful if there was a final date beyond which exams can’t be cancelled. 

A curious dimension of the plans is that the policy environment (in terms of centre policies, arrangements for appeals, etc) only comes into effect if exams are cancelled, but we are expected to progress with the assessments themselves in the absence of these arrangements regardless. To implement a policy framework in a college, but not actually establishing that policy before commencing, and possibly fully implementing the policy but never actually establishing it is a bizarre prospect. 

Apart from the implications for us, which, as ever, we will find a way to navigate, I do worry about how easy it is for students to manage these arrangements effectively, and wonder about the unintended consequences for student behaviours and for learning. They have already experienced significant disruption to learning, and lack the actual and emotional experience of sitting GCSEs. The Plan B arrangements could compromise our ability to ameliorate the disadvantages these students have accumulated. 

The contradictory plans (A and B) make the experience of the final months fundamentally different to a normal year. In a normal year we use mock exams as part of the preparation process, but it is known to staff and students alike that these do not count towards the final award, and students will respond to this fact in various ways. With the Plan B arrangements, students will have, across three subjects, nine assessments which will interrupt this crucial phase of build-up. If in a particular week I have an assessment in Psychology which ‘might’ be a third of my A level, would I devote the energy I should to the Classics essay I am supposed to be doing that week that will not count towards my A level?  

Some questions:

  • Should these internal exams be administered during lesson times, with a suspended timetable or a combination of both? There are advantages and costs to any approach. To what extent do we compromise teaching time to manage assessment securely?
  • To what extent is it feasible to maintain integrity of the test. Should departments prepare multiple papers? What is the upper level of reasonableness in this context? If there is a choice of papers, it reduces the chances of malpractice as a deviant student would have to either be very thorough or just lucky for their endeavours to pay off. But to what extent does having multiple papers in itself undermine the integrity of the test (the very thing it would be attempting to preserve)? Is 14/50 the same on one paper as 14/50 on another, and how skilled would you have to be in assessment practice to be able to make such a judgement? Would we have to run a full awarding process for each option?
  • If there is a large teaching team, should question papers be kept secret from those teams, to avoid conscious or unconscious distortion of teaching? 
  • How can we share information about this process intelligently with students and parents, in a way which ensures that students appreciate the significance of the tests but are not side-tracked into narrow revision-focused activity?
  • With our internal exams where do we pitch standards? The intention for ‘real’ exams is to produce a standard half way between 2021 and 2019. Should we stick to a ‘real’ A level standard, or make up our own version of where we think 2022 should lie?

This question of standards is a really interesting and important one. Our instinct may be to simply mark to A level standards, using real mark schemes from years gone by. This may give students the best understanding of where they are and what they need to do to improve. But would we want such a strict set of grades entering a teacher assessed grades process, particularly given that these students are not at the end of the course? It is undoubtedly true that true understanding (and excellence in the exam hall) builds with mastery of the whole subject, and students weave the synoptic threads of a subject together. What are the consequences of giving students inflated grades? I would suggest that inflated grades risk compromising student progress further down the line.  Should we have different grade sets to use with students and to use for external purposes? This option reminds me a bit of Herbert Asquith’s comment about the war office: “The War Office kept three sets of figures: one to mislead the public, another to mislead the Cabinet, and the third to mislead itself”.

Some have suggested that Plan A and Plan B creates an issue in that students have a ready-made grounds for appeal. I agree that there is a potential point of difference here, but frankly if exams go ahead, then work produced to satisfy a contingency arrangement will be of no consequence, however well a student has performed. This does illustrate the importance of how we communicate with students and help them navigate the various scenarios. There will undoubtedly some that will feel a little disenchanted if they secure an A in real exams having previously built a TAG evidence basket of A*A*A*. We need to manage expectations and understanding very carefully.

Each college will need to develop a plan of how to manage what is a highly complex process. It is one of those things that is too important to be left to individual subject teams, and it is vital that we build on what we have learned from the experience of TAGs in 2021, and CAGs the year before. The overall picture for sixth form colleges is covered in two Six Dimensions pieces examining outcomes in 2021 ('Examining the Unexamined Life’ and ‘Appealing Qualities' - login required for access), but colleges will also need to consider their own level of generosity in 2021 awarding, and what it reveals about their own understanding of standards, as they prepare their approach.

This is a story which, one suspects, has some distance left to run.  

Nick Allen is vice principal at Peter Symonds College and leads the Six Dimensions project, an in-depth yearly analysis of academic and progression data for the sector as a whole and for individual SFCA members. JCQ published a set of FAQs on Friday 3rd December which address some of the issues raised here, though not all - you can read them in full here, and the most relevant are below.

Ofqual’s guidance states that sources of evidence should be consistent across a class or cohort of students. What does ‘consistent’ mean in this context?

As with 2021, we advise that, as far as possible, the same tasks should be used consistently across a class or cohort. Students should be assessed on the same tasks at the same time, or, if you cannot assess the whole cohort at the same time, the approach you take should be consistent for the cohort; students should be assessed at broadly the same time, over the same range of content and using the same style of assessment. The questions must differ between assessments 

Our assessment plan doesn’t fit with Ofqual’s guidance on how/when to assess. Do we have to change our plan? 

You should use the guidance to determine if your planned approach meets its requirements, and amend your approach where it is possible to do so and appropriate for your setting. If it would not be reasonable to amend your approach and exams are cancelled you will need to explain your approach in your centre policy.

Do these have to be taken in exam conditions? 

Ofqual’s guidance refers to ‘exam like conditions’. It is not necessary to, for example, use the gym or bring in external invigilators, but candidates should work independently under timed conditions for each of their assessments. 

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