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Students’ anxiety about the allocations of grades for cancelled high-stakes public examinations

‘My main anxiety at the moment is how I am going to be graded.’

Lucy Wenham, University of Bristol Claire Lee, University of Bristol

With the imminent release of A-level grades in England on Thursday, 13 August, followed by GCSEs on 20 August, anticipation is mounting. This year will be unlike any other. For the first time, with mass school closures resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, students have not had the opportunity to sit these high-stakes public examinations. They will instead receive allocated grades, arrived at through a combination of predicted grades, teacher judgments and comparative rankings of their perceived performance in relation to their classmates (Ofqual, 2020). Our research (EBI, 2020) clearly shows that students directly affected are experiencing considerable stress, anxiety and a feeling of helplessness concerning the allocation of these grades – which is unsurprising given that their future educational and employment choices and opportunities are at stake.

‘Students directly affected are experiencing considerable stress, anxiety and a feeling of helplessness concerning the allocation of these grades – which is unsurprising since their future educational and employment opportunities are at stake.’

We find that students’ fundamental sources of worry and controversy are the subjective nature of teacher assessment and ranking, and the repurposing of measures never intended for the allocation of final grades. Concerns with teacher bias take on new weight now, with teachers playing an unprecedented, explicit role in grade allocation: some fear that relationships with students will sway individual teachers’ judgements.

The use of prior performance measures is viewed with similar scepticism and unease. Students are keenly aware that mock exams are not always taken seriously; prior performance thus often sets a low bar. And, rather than being a teacher’s accurate prediction of future examination performance, so-called predicted grades may differ depending on their use – as motivational technique or bargaining chip – and so are often not really predictions at all. Some students believe that teachers deliberately lower predictions for particular individuals to generate a sense of urgency and fuel a much-needed last push. This may have been legitimate when such gradings were simply between teacher and student and remained an in-school measure – a stepping-stone rather than the destination itself.

Likewise, students are all too familiar with the pleading, persuasion and negotiation that can occur between students and teachers, as students look to strengthen their chances of an offer of a place on a particularly desirable university course. Strong predicted A-level grades are crucial here. With actual predictions hard to make and the possibility that a motivated student may exceed expectations at the last minute, teachers may stretch the truth in making favourable predictions. Predicted grades, then, are much more murky than they seem. This echoes other research, which found that the vast majority of predicted grades – three quarters – failed to match actual subsequent performance (Murphy & Wyness, 2020). This year, inaccuracies in predicted grades take on a new meaning.

Until now, students’ actual performance has always been there to override teacher inaccuracy, conscious or unconscious bias, or even over-zealous support. What is relevant here is that up until this year, individuals who were out-performing expectations could use their actual grades to redeem unfair or harsh judgements. What, then, will occur this year? How can students contest gradings they consider unfair? Which students will do this? A wealth of evidence indicates that more privileged or middle-class parents have been better able to utilise the full range of information available to them, to play the system and to obtain educational advantage for their children (Vincent, Braun, & Ball, 2010). These parents are likely do this now too. It is vital, then, that schools inform and support all parents, carers and students who wish to contest grades, so that this year’s grading process does not become yet another source of widening educational inequality.

A final point: all this anxiety and controversy surrounding grade allocation is fundamentally connected to our fetishisation of high-stakes testing. These issues would never have arisen in an education system in which continuous assessment and ongoing teacher monitoring of learning (Au, 2017) was more embedded, and which had teacher trust and professionalism at its heart.


References

Au, W. (2017). Can we test for liberation? Moving from retributive to restorative and transformative assessment in schools. Critical Education, 8(13).

Elizabeth Blackwell Institute for Health Research [EBI], University of Bristol (2020). Covid-19 ethics and social science research projects [Webpage]. Retrieved from http://www.bristol.ac.uk/blackwell/health-research/covid-19-research/ethics-and-social-science/

Murphy, R., & Wyness, G. (2020). Minority report: The impact of predicted grades on university admissions of disadvantaged groups. Education Economics, 28(4), 333–350.

Ofqual (2020). Summer 2020 grades for GCSE, AS and A level, Extended Project Qualification and Advanced Extension Award in maths: Guidance for teachers, students, parents and carers. Coventry: Ofqual.

Vincent, C., Braun, A., & Ball, S. (2010). Local links, local knowledge: Choosing care settings and schools. British Educational Research Journal, 36(2), 279–298.