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‘The Government’s handling of exams has been an utter fiasco’

PUBLISHED: 14:39 23 August 2020

A-levels and GCSE exams were scrapped with pupils instead receiving estimated grades. Picture: Getty Images

A-levels and GCSE exams were scrapped with pupils instead receiving estimated grades. Picture: Getty Images

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The Government was warned the exam grades algorithm was unfair and should’ve taken action before results were published, writes Ipswich Borough Council leader David Ellesmere

The Government’s handling of exams this year has been an utter fiasco.

At the heart of the problem was ministers’ overwhelming fear that relying on teachers’ predicted grades would lead to “grade inflation”.

Teachers assess what their students are capable of achieving. However, for whatever reason, each year many students fail to achieve that potential in exams.

They may not have revised as much as they should, may not have bothered because they had got an unconditional job or university offer or may just have had a bad day. The key point is that the reason an individual student doesn’t achieve their predicted grades is largely random and not predictable given the information the Government has.

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Applying an algorithm using statistical analysis to predict which students wouldn’t achieve their potential was always likely to generate cases of individual unfairness. This was compounded by the algorithm used.

It looked at the past performance of schools to see whether students should be downgraded. This meant that, even if you were the highest performing student in the country, if other students at your school hadn’t done so well in previous years then it was impossible for you to get top grades.

Another problem was that statistical analysis won’t work for small subject groups so their teacher assessed grades were used unchanged. Small groups are much more likely in private fee-paying schools giving them an advantage over students from large state sixth form colleges.

These problems made a system that already had the potential to be unfair to individual students almost guaranteed to be, especially for the brightest students in state schools.

The Government backed a system focussed on ensuring the “right” overall result while ignoring the devastating effect it would have on individuals. When this became clear it was inevitable it would have to be scrapped.

This isn’t just hindsight. The Government was warned about these issues months ago. At the very least, ministers should have looked at what the algorithm was generating and spot the problems before results were published, rather than after.

This is a very sorry episode which has further cemented this Government’s reputation for incompetence, and will have far reaching consequences for years to come.


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