2021 has been a weird year. Students have been back at school since February but due to significant disruption to education caused in 2020, the government made an early decision to cancel summer GCSE and A-levels exams for the second time. This was a decision that was widely accepted, but also a decision that opens many questions, some of which we will try answer in this blog.
Note: this will not cover vocational/technical and other qualifications which have slightly different rules.
In January 2021, once the decision was made to cancel summer board exams, Ofqual had a discussion on the alternate arrangements to give fair A-level and GCSE grades. They concluded that students will be evaluated by teacher-assessed grades or TAGs. This means that teachers will assess students themselves using a broad range of evidence from A-level tests that have been conducted pre- and post-lockdown. Despite some student backlash that pre-lockdown test performances weren’t their best, it is down to the individual teacher/school as to whether they want to use them and what importance they will have.
The government has stated that teachers should only be assessing content that has been already taught. They also recommend that grades are determined as late as possible to allow as much face-to-face teaching time as is feasible. To support teachers, exam boards have offered support materials such as unseen questions/mark schemes/grade boundaries for teachers to use in their evidence. The evidence used by teachers should all be relayed across to the students, so they know how they are being assessed. With no uniform national standards, as was the case last year, this system relies heavily on trust.
In an aim to reduce bias, exam boards expect schools to consider their grades from previous years when making their decision (i.e. the school give a similar number of A grades in A level Maths this year compared to what the school achieved in 2020/2019/2018) with the hope that this will prevent harshness/leniency. To further improve quality assurance, exam boards will randomly assess schools to ensure that the evidence they are using is adequate and fair. However, that is as far as boards will get involved this year as there will be no moderation of TAGs, a decision made after the uproar caused last summer. With the TAG given being final, there is great responsibility in the teachers to make the right call when they submit their grades by Friday 18th June to the exam board.
Note: There are slight differences for particular subjects like art and design with grades being solely based on the portfolio and a separate grade is submitted for the endorsement in science subjects.
As well as the standard summer assessments discussed above, on the 4th of May Ofqual also confirmed arrangements for autumn GCSE and A-levels exams this year. They announced that any student that is receiving a TAG this summer can get a fresh grade by taking an actual exam board paper in autumn. The exam boards are to offer exams in all GCSE/A-level subjects which will be used to assess a subject grade as they would be in a ‘normal’ non-covid exam season. A-level exams are planned to take place in October with GCSE’s following in November and December. This is aimed particularly at private candidates who are not studying at a particular school, but the opportunity is open to all students.
A level grade boundaries will not necessarily be lower in 2021. Grades are teacher assessed in 2021 which means that there are no national set grade boundaries and teachers will award grades at their discretion as per the guidelines mentioned earlier. Teachers will be likely using a mix of past papers and new papers which will already have set grade boundaries from the exam board. However, it is down to the teachers as to how they choose to interpret a group of individual results and individual grade boundaries which will ultimately decide the final A-level grade. It is also worth remembering that final grades will even out to an extent as teachers are advised to consider results from previous years. For example, this means schools will try to give out a similar number of A grades in Chemistry in 2021 as students have achieved in the previous few years. This could make set grade boundaries less relevant and mean that simple mark comparisons amongst peers in a year group may be more important. Note again that the final grade that a teacher submits will not be altered by exam boards, unlike last year.
As you can imagine, this is a different process compared to a normal year where students can simply ask for a re-mark of their papers. This year, if you are not happy with the A-level grade you have received, they can still be appealed, but the process is as follows:
A-level results day is on Tuesday 10 August 2021 in the UK. Students in Wales will receive provisional grades in June to allow time to appeal results.
Author: Dhillon Hirani
Editor: Latifa Haque