Awarding of GCSE & GCE Grades for 2020 - Initial ASE guidance

(This comment piece will feature in the next issue of Education In Science magazine, to be released in May)

One of the major impacts of the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on schools and colleges across the UK has been the cancellation of this year’s exams, with teachers being called upon to play a greater role in judging the likely performance of their students at the end of their course. In England, for example, to make sure that students get the qualifications they need to progress on to college and university this summer, schools and colleges will be using the new process outlined by Ofqual to award grades.

Schools and colleges will need to provide the following information to their exam board:

  • Centre assessment grade for each student; and
  • Rank order of students within each grade.

Initially, teachers may have some concerns about making decisions about grading, because they will be worried that this will be done fairly across and within different schools and colleges, and also that unconscious biases do not disadvantage some students. To assist teachers in this process, ASE offers the following advice for developing ways of making these important decisions about grades.

Examinations such as GCSE and GCE provide both a measure of attainment at a particular point in a student’s school career and also a possible key to further study and prospects. Assessment involves the collection, interpretation and use of data, and decisions about what data you use to make your grade decisions play a role in this. It may be tempting to simply base your final grades on one set of data that is common to all your students, such as the mock exam results.

Many would believe this to be an objective move to make. However, basing an important decision on one data set may not be reliable. It is a small sample of the assessment data that you hold on students and it could well be that some students revised and prepared well for the mocks, and others didn’t; that possibly some classes had covered more of the curriculum at that point in the year; that some colleagues were more lenient in their marking; or that individual students simply had an ‘off’ day on that particular occasion. This is why the advice states that the final grades and ranking should be based on a range of evidence, including mock exams, non-exam assessment, homework assignments and any other record of student performance over the course of study.

The importance of what is included in summative assessment, and how the assessment is conducted, cannot be expressed too strongly. While summative assessment has an undeniably strong impact on what is taught and how it is taught (Harlen, 2007), it is also important that any decisions taken are based on a good sample of reliable and valid evidence. This influence is positive if the learning aims are fully reflected in the assessment but, all too often, in single pieces of assessment this is not the case.

We know that all students work differently. Some perform best in class and others perform at their best in final exams. This is why it is so important that schools and colleges make holistic judgements about the grades they believe their students would have most likely achieved, had they been able to complete their learning and assessments. So, use your professional expertise to draw on the full range of available evidence, rather than solely assigning grades based on performance in one exam or an average across many assessment activities.

Teachers are highly experienced at making assessment decisions and evidence shows they can rank order their students with a high degree of accuracy. 

The principal advantage of teacher assessment over testing is generally acknowledged to be the fact that teachers are with their pupils for long and continuous periods of time, constantly interacting with them inside and outside the classroom, posing questions to develop their thinking and observing them as they carry out assigned tasks and activities. In consequence, teachers are assumed to have a more comprehensive and, by default, more valid picture of their pupils as learners and achievers than any set of test results can provide alone. Harlen (2007) shares this view: ‘Teachers’ judgements can, when moderated, provide more accurate information than external tests because they can cover a much wider range of outcomes and so provide a more complete picture of students’ achievements’ (Harlen 2007, p.138).

Teachers are highly experienced at making assessment decisions and evidence shows that they can rank order their students with a high degree of accuracy. What is less clear is how the ranges across different classes compare with one another. It is this type of inconsistency that causes concern where teacher assessment features prominently in regional or national assessment systems (Stanley et al, 2009), and leads to the need for moderation in some form. Therefore, consensus moderation is a vital part of efforts to promote a more consistent use of standards over time and across sites.

Consistency in judgement involves assessors developing a common understanding of the standards, as well as similar recognition of performances that demonstrate those standards (Maxwell, 2009). So, it is through moderation that teachers develop a shared understanding of the meaning of standards and how to apply them in a range of cases. Exemplars or samples of student work provide the impetus for discussion about standards, creating concrete referents for illustrating standards that otherwise remain tacit and unarticulated professional knowledge.

It is in the context of moderation that teachers come to act as a community of assessors: they discuss and explore actual student work examples and examine how the work matches the expected features agreed by the teachers involved. Also, it is through such talk and the classification of the work against the standards that teacher judgement becomes ‘tuned in’ or calibrated to achieve high levels of reliability or inter-rater consistency. In this way, moderation can provide the necessary checks and balances on teacher judgement, acting as a form of quality assurance for delivering comparability in evidence-based judgements of student achievement.