Grades? Let the students into uni!

Posted in Class Struggle's blog on Wed, 12/08/2020 - 08:02,
Scottish pupils holding placards at a protest.  Placards read "Credibility over futures?" and "Students not stats".

By a London Teacher

Scottish school students received grades for Nationals, Highers and Advanced Higher courses on Tuesday 4 August.

Grades had been estimated by schools after exams were cancelled due the Covid pandemic. 125,000 grades, or a quarter of the total, were lowered by the Scottish Qualifications Authority.

Amid a storm of protesting parents and students the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, said any “genuine individual injustices” would be rectified under the appeals process. This is almost certainly untrue because there is a systemic problem with the methods being used, not individual errors.

The problem in Scotland will arrive in England later in the month when students get A Level and GCSE grades using a similar methodology to that used in Scotland. The Telegraph (5 August) commented that, “[The method being used] hits the schools the Government should be most proud of – the rapidly improving “turnaround” schools that have been on a steep upward curb in recent years.” The Telegraph’s comment is correct and this has been widely understood in schools, by teachers and Head teachers, for months.

Teachers have been asked to set students a grade and then order the whole cohort. So, say, a Maths teacher with 60 A Level students will have produced a list of kids from 1 to 60, top to bottom, each student with a grade assigned.

These lists will then be compared with recent results at the school and adjusted – lifted or downgraded - to match. If a school did badly last year, but is doing much better this year a lot of kids will lose out. In practice that means a lot of working class children will lose out. Schools in better-off areas tend to have more stable leaderships and consistent results.

It is a misunderstanding to believe that these grades come from real “teacher assessments”. Each list of grades has been discussed by teachers and Senior Leadership Teams for hours. Many schools have then destroyed any written evidence of those discussions, knowing they will be challenged.

School managements have one eye on school results’ tables, and Ofsted, and are seriously untrustworthy. Teachers have the pressure of performance related pay and a natural bias towards students they have worked with.

So, whatever the solution, leaving schools to determine grades, unmoderated, is not the answer. “Teacher predictions” alone would mean massive grade inflation.

After the Scottish shambles Ofqual has announced a reform of the grading system which will allow schools (not individual students) to appeal against grades. That might even be reasonable if it proves to be a genuine reform rather than window-dressing to confuse angry parents.

Labour spokesperson, Kate Green, commented that she was against grades being driven by “computer algorithms” proving she has no understanding of computers, algorithms or the grade system under discussion. She had nothing useful to say, and could just as usefully have spent the day in bed.

That’s a shame because the lack of exams provides us with an opportunity to rethink the exam system. Certainly GCSEs, which put students under vast stress for no good reason, and distort the curriculum and learning, should be abolished.

Right now A Level students who miss their University offers by a grade or two should be admitted to their first choice University. Similarly, GCSE students should be admitted to Sixth Forms or Colleges to do the subjects they have applied for.

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