A fork in the road: 2022 exams

A fork in the road: 2022 exams
Date7th Feb 2022AuthorBill WatkinCategoriesPolicy and News

SFCA’s chief executive, Bill Watkin, spoke to Westminster Insight’s conference on 2022 exams on Monday 31st of January. He shared a few thoughts about the issues students, teachers, and college leaders are facing and thinking about at the moment…

Grade inflation that doesn’t, on the surface, look like grade inflation

Our current Year 13 has probably had the most significant disruption to their education during the Covid era. Current thinking is that their learning behaviours, including self-regulation and metacognition, are less developed; the depth of their knowledge, skills and understanding is not at a ‘normal’ level; compared to their predecessors, their emotional, physical, and mental health have suffered; their social skills are less refined after periods of lockdown and isolation; and they have no experience of sitting formal public exams. All this means that the standard that we might expect to see from them this summer is almost certainly, in general, lower than that reached by school and college leavers in previous years.

Of course, Ofqual has a mechanism to move grade boundaries to reflect the different standards of different generations: Comparable Outcomes is a strategy that has been in operation for a decade or more. This means that with a less able cohort, boundaries are moved up, ensuring fewer top grades – and vice versa, of course. But this year we will consciously and artificially ensure that grades do not accurately reflect standards. The 2022 grades will be set at a mid-point between 2019 and 2021, so “higher than 2019”, for students whose standard of knowledge is broadly thought to be lower than in 2019.

What this means is another year of significant grade inflation – though you might not notice it this time. The exam results next summer might not look like inflation, because the number of A grades, B grades, and so on won’t increase (and in fact will be lower than last year) – but grades that are higher than 2019 for standards that are lower than in 2019 is also a kind of defining inflation.

The publication of Advance Information on 7th February will go some way towards addressing this problem, but I fear too many people are hoping for too much from it.

Inevitably, we will need, more than ever, early diagnosis and then a supportive and nuanced intervention framework for the new cohorts coming into sixth forms and universities (current Y11 and Y13 students), who will have grades that, on average, slightly overstate their preparedness for further study.

One possible consequence of a stepped return to 2019 standards

The class of 2021 who deferred or did not take up a university place may well feel that they are in a good position to re-apply for 2022 entry, including on highly competitive courses. Their grades were artificially inflated, even further than in 2020.

The class of 2022, by contrast, will feel that they are doubly disadvantaged at the high end of the grade range. They missed more learning, and their grades are artificially suppressed to be lower than those awarded in 2021. 

The numbers of young people in this scenario may not be high, but we do need to keep an eye on the situation.

RQF BTEC requires at least a Pass in the exam component…

But what if you missed the exam in the January series because of Covid? There are no resit opportunities for learners who were absent in the January series - Pearson instead points to the Special Considerations process in place for a student who misses and cannot reasonably defer.

Of course, a more radical strategy could be to drop the requirement – just for 2022 – for candidates to pass this element to qualify for the award. So, low marks would affect their final grade, but would not automatically disqualify them. At present, it does not seem Pearson will adopt this approach.

Riding two horses at once

We learned in the last two years how hard it is to organise an Open Evening when you have to be ready for both face-to-face and virtual models. It might not quite be twice as much work, but preparing for both still represents a huge additional burden.

Similarly, preparing to deliver Plan A and Plan B– exams and no exams – concurrently is causing extra work and extra headaches for both teachers and learners. There is an insoluble pedagogical conundrum: how do you prepare students for a terminal peak in June, so that their exam performance is the best it can be and accurately reflects their standard, while at the same time preparing them for mini-peaks, with students needing to show their best in assessment points over the year?

Because this crop of leavers is insufficiently prepared for exams, teachers must focus on getting students content-ready and exam-skill-ready right away. However, in case exams are cancelled and Plan B is invoked, teachers must also prepare students for a gradual build-up of evidence-gathering assessments, delivered in “exam-like” conditions, and this is a very different approach.

So, there is a strong argument for an early decision. Plan A or Plan B? There is merit in the view that neither route will serve students well while both are in operation at the same time. But there is widespread agreement that exams represent the best option. So, should we commit to exams and abandon plans for TAGs? 

Well, the last 2 years have shown us that however determined we are that exams should go ahead, the public health situation can trump our determination at the last minute and we are powerless to resist the need to go for Plan B. Since Plan B is the only option that we can guarantee, should we then opt for Plan B right now? Yes, maybe the summer will come and we find that exams could have run after all. But maybe not. And it is this uncertainty that means that teachers are having to run 2 parallel systems. 

Speaking at the Sixth Form Colleges Association’s conference, Dr Jo Saxton, chief regulator at Ofqual, said that she was “really aware” that some teachers and students “would dearly like us to switch off contingencies given the government’s confidence and commitment to exams going ahead”. 

“But,” she added, “I’m afraid that the need to collect evidence of student performance in case exams don’t take place is important. It won’t surprise you that I can’t agree to turn off those arrangements.”

Special consideration, special arrangements

Centres have seen an increase in demand for reasonable adjustments and access arrangements compared with previous years. The stresses and strains experienced by young people over the last two years, together with the reduced capacity of health services and agencies to address the increased mental and emotional health needs in schools and colleges, have led to greater demand for extra help in formal assessment situations. Many more young people present requests to have their own room and their own invigilator. These requests are often supported, in writing, by parents and even GPs. But too many such requests can present an intolerable workforce and financial burden; sometimes there simply are not enough rooms or people for colleges to be able to agree to them. 

It is hard to say no to any young person,when you know she or he has had an appallingly difficult year. But we also know that sharp-elbowed articulate middle-class parents will have the edge in making the case for extra help.

It’s hard to imagine what it feels like . . . 

To be a teacher faced with so many challenges, when you are already exhausted after giving your all to keep young people safe and in education over the last two years.

Or to be a student, faced with life-shaping assessments, when the preparation journey has been so bumpy. 

And with only weeks to go, we still haven’t reached the critical fork in the road: Plan A or Plan B?

Bill Watkin is the Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which hosts Blog 6.

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