COVID grade inflation to be wound back over two years

As reported by BBC news, GCSE and A-level grades in England will be returned to pre-COVID levels over the next two years, the government has announced

Next summer’s results will be wound back to a “mid-point” between 2019 and 2021, after two years of unusually high grade inflation. Ministers say exams will happen but the option of teacher-assessed grades will be kept in reserve. Pupils will get notice of exam topics in some subjects to aid revision. And there will be a choice of questions in some arts subjects, as well as materials such as formulae for maths and science subjects.

These modifications aim to protect pupils against lost learning due to the COVID pandemic. Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi says he is putting “fairness at the heart” of his plans for exams in 2022 and the year after. Last summer, exams were cancelled for the second year in a row due to the pandemic, and grades were again awarded by teachers. This led to the proportion of pupils passing and scoring higher grades rising significantly for the second year in a row.

Between 2019 and 2021, the proportion of GCSEs, for example, awarded the top grades 7 to 9, rose nearly 12 percentage points to 28.9%. Usually the share of grades is held steady, by a system of comparable outcomes designed to maintain standards from one year to the next. Exam boards use statistics and predictions to maintain fairness in the system.

Chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton said: “As we return to summer exams, in 2022 exam boards will set the grade boundaries based on a profile that reflects a mid-point between 2021 and pre-pandemic grading.

“This will provide a safety net for students, to reflect the disruption this cohort have experienced already in their course and recognising the fact that, because of the pandemic, most A-level students won’t have taken public exams before.

“Our aim is to return to a pre-pandemic grade profile.

“But we don’t think it would be fair on 2022’s students to do it all in one go, given the disruption they have experienced. We will aim, therefore, to return in broadly two steps.”

Dr Mary Bousted, joint general secretary of the National Education Union, said: “The government and Ofqual are picking an arbitrary number out of the air in order to determine how many of each grade will be issued next summer.

“Such a random act undermines their argument that exams are the fairest way to assess students.

“Whilst last summer’s system wasn’t perfect, the grades at least were a reflection of what students themselves had done, rather than simply reflecting how much better or worse they were than their peers,” she said.

Ministers also confirmed a set of adaptations to exams including a choice of questions in English Literature, history, ancient history and geography. Teachers will also get information on the focus of exam content so they can guide students on what to revise – but not until February.

Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, called for information on exam content to be shared earlier.

“It would also enable teachers to do the very best for each of their students, ensuring they cover as much of the specification as possible, and that they are well prepared for the exams and assessments,” he said.

But Ian Bauckham, interim chairman of exams watchdog Ofqual, said that if exam topics were announced too early it could discourage students from covering as much content as possible.

Giving three to four months notice was “the right balance to strike”, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Zahawi said: “We are committed to rigorous standards being fairly applied, and exams are the fairest way to assess students, which is why they will take place next year.”

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