The A-level results mess

GoT meme: "Brace yourself: Results are coming"

I should caveat this post by mentioning that I know nothing of secondary education, and am not involved in undergrad admissions for my university – so this is purely the view of an uninformed layperson.

As most of my readers will know, there’s a row in the UK at present about A-level results. A-levels are the exams that people sit at age ~18, at the end of secondary school, and are key to getting into universities. As of a few years ago, thanks to the views of Michael Gove on how education should work, they contain no modular exams or coursework and are judged entirely on one set of exams at the end of the year. And this year, thanks to COVID-19, those exams didn’t happen.

Students apply to universities long before they know their A-level results, and so their applications are based on predictions made by their teachers of what grades they will probably get. The universities then make “conditional offers” that commit to providing a place to the student so long as they achieve a given set of grades at the real exams. This has a host of problems that have led some to campaign for years for a change to the system, but that’s a different story.

Thanks to the lack of actual exams this year, students’ final grades have been based on their teachers’ predictions. But for various (mostly sensible) reasons, teachers tend to be generous / optimistic in their predicted grades, and so simply using these would have led to what the government and the tabloids call “grade inflation” – more people getting high grades this year than usual. To avoid this, the regulatory body OfQual was charged with adjusting the predicted grades using a statistical approach. As near as I can understand it, the grades of students in each school were adjusted according to how students from that school usually do. Many have been downgraded from their predictions, leaving them surprised to find they are rejected from their chosen universities. Some smaller number have presumably been upgraded, though we don’t hear about that, and though that won’t impact them as much as they are unlikely to have conditional offers above their predicted grades.

Of course, students are disappointed every year. But there’s a huge difference between being predicted good grades but then failing to achieve them through your own efforts in an exam, and being predicted good grades and then having them reduced because a government algorithm said so – however accurate that algorithm may be when validated through hindcast. One is, ultimately, down to individual performance (albeit in a single exam, which nobody except Michael Gove thinks is a good way of assessing ability), while the other is something that the individual in question is unable to affect.

The task that OfQual were set was clearly impossible to do with any sense of justice. They have probably succeeded in producing a set of national marks which in a big-picture, statistical, sense, reflects what this year’s cohort of students would have achieved. But however good their statisticians, there’s no way that they could achieve that while remaining fair to individuals. As somebody beautifully put it on Twitter:

So given a choice between the problem of “grade inflation” and the problem of arbitrary-seeming marks for students, I find myself asking… is grade inflation really a problem? If, for one year only, the aggregate student body does better than usual, what harm does that cause? This entire year is inherently a set of mitigating circumstances, and there doesn’t seem to be any gain in punishing students even more for the year in which they happen to turn 18.

Sure, an excess of high grades would cause some trouble for the most prestigious universities, as they may not have room to take all the students they gave conditional offers to (I say “may”, because they’ll have lost international numbers this time around). But given how keen these universities usually are to increase recruitment, I’m sure they can find inventive ways to deal with that. Maybe some of the students are even asked to defer to the following year. That feels like much less of a problem than effectively telling a generation of new adults, “What you do doesn’t matter, you will be assigned a place in society according to the school that you come from”.

Given the situation all around us, would it really be so terrible to be kind?

Posted by simon in The wider world