Opinion, Summer 2021 Exam Cancellations

Mike Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College in the UAE, explains the stark challenges ahead for the summer 2021 examination season. Mr Lambert was writing prior to the announcement of a new UK national lockdown.
Opinion, Summer 2021 Exam Cancellations
By Jenny Mollon
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It is bitter-sweet to feel as fortunate as we should do about the education we have managed to provide here in Dubai during the pandemic, writes Mike Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College.

Children in England were already three months behind in their studies this year, even before the summer break. Facing the prospect of further school closures, for an as yet undefined period of time and the situation seems set to worsen. 

[Editors Note: Mr Lambert wrote this article prior to the announcement of a second UK national lockdown and the news that exams are "highly unlikely" to go ahead]. 

Back in June, a study from University College London showed that two million school children in the UK had done no work or managed less than an hour a day during distance learning – that is around 20% of the school age population. Meanwhile, almost a third of private schools in England had managed to provide four or more online lessons per day, 70% of state school pupils had between none and one online lesson per day. Within those groups boys were further behind in the curriculum than girls and the learning gap for poorer pupils widened by at least 46%.

These statistics paint a stark contrast between different groups of children within the UK even before we compare them to their contemporaries across the world, some of whom are also preparing for GCSEs and A Level examinations this summer. Here at Dubai College, for example, students have not had to miss a single lesson since the pandemic started. While all lessons in the summer term were online (and 50% of lessons remain online for our lower school students), 100% of students have access to 100% of their lessons.

Bearing these differences in mind, the British government will soon have a very difficult decision to make about the fate of this summer’s GCSE and A Level examinations. Do they plough on and require students to sit physical examinations in June, or cancel the tests and rely upon teacher assessed grades like last summer? Any decision must be driven by fairness.

But how can the UK government ensure a level playing field for students in the UK who continue to be differently affected by the pandemic? If one child at a UK private school is receiving another four weeks of additional tuition this month compared to a child at a UK state school whose school is closed, they will be a distinct advantage.

Equally, how can the UK government ensure a level playing field between our students here in Dubai and their contemporaries in the UK? If Dubai students have, in effect, attended school (online or otherwise) for 7 out of the past 7 available months of schooling, whereas their UK counterparts have been in attendance for only 3 or 4 out of the past 7 months, they too will be at a distinct advantage.

Acknowledging the unevenness of the education which has been provided to all the many and various students around the world who are hoping to sit GCSE and A Level examinations this summer, must be the first step to evaluating whether or not it is fairer to hold or cancel examinations this summer.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson has previously stated that all students will have access to a package of exceptional measures to improve fairness and prevent disruption if they sit examinations this summer. What these measures intend to do is ensure that more of our disadvantaged students will be able to get over the starting line and access the examination content. What these measures cannot do is, however, is remove the head start of the advantaged and hold back those students who are streets ahead.

In terms of raw scores in the examinations, therefore, those students who have had the greatest access to high quality education are likely to "cluster" tightly at the top end, whereas those students with the least access to this type of provision will form an elongated tail. However, once the examinations have been sat Ofqual do have an opportunity to manipulate the results to ensure that the proportion of 9-1 grades remains in line with previous years, something which they do annually. 

In any normal year, Ofqual converts different raw scores to standardised grades in order to smooth out any minor differences in the difficulty of the papers. Simply put: it would be unfair for one cohort of students to get higher grades one year because the paper was easier than the previous examination. In a roundabout way, this is exactly what Ofqual will do this summer, except the minor difference which is usually smoothed out will be replaced by a major readjustment.

By granting students access to a package of exceptional measures this year, Ofqual should in theory be able to ensure that the proportion of students who achieve each grade this year are the same as previous year even if these students have a far weaker grasp of the skills and content. On paper, therefore, they will do no less well than their predecessors even if they do not have comparable proficiency.

However, on account of the huge loss of learning time as well as the physical and psychological impact of the pandemic, is it really fair to require thousands of students to sit an examination for which they will feel woefully and differently underprepared? Such a mindset is hardly the foundation for examination success.

And yet, while such an examination system is patently a flawed way to evaluate student attainment this year, it is possible that it is the worst form assessment of student proficiency except for all the others.

The longer the virus continues to spread and schools remain closed, the greater the prospect is that schools will be required to submit centre assessment grades again this year. Centre Assessment Grades (or CAGs) are grades which a school or college (the centre) submits for ratification by an examination board in lieu of students actually sitting an examination. CAGs are effectively the grades which teachers believe their students would be most likely to achieve, if exams were to go ahead. They are based on teachers’ assessment of their students’ work during the full length of their course.

However, under the current highly differentiated circumstances in which students around the world find themselves, with huge variability in their recent continuity of education as well as unevenly distributed gaps in their knowledge, how can school teachers in the 4000 secondary schools in the UK and the 200 or so British Schools Overseas hope to use the same yardstick when making an assessment about students’ most likely grades this year?

Are teachers meant to assign grades which they believe students would have achieved under normal circumstances of full attendance and full curriculum access? This would require some seriously imaginative filling in of the blanks. Or will teachers be assigning the grades which they think students would have achieved under the current circumstances of varied absence and access?

This option would require Ofqual to moderate grades to ensure alignment with previous years’ results. More on this shortly. Or will teachers be assigning the grades which they think students would have achieved in the examinations had they been afforded the raft of exceptional measures which Williamson outlined? This would require teachers to conceptualise the impact of advantages which they have never hitherto seen applied to students.

Each of these three options fills me with dread. The prospect of dozens of teachers in each of 4000+ schools devising grades for thousands of students under enormous pressure, according to any of the above three systems has the potential to create an even bigger mess than last summer.

Lest we forget, last summer at the eleventh hour Ofqual performed the most spectacular U-turn in the history of British education. Having given schools extensive and explicit instructions on how to calculate centre assessment grades, Ofqual discarded their own system a day before results were released. Contained within their guidance had been an explicit threat to schools that, if the submitted grades were significantly different from the historic average of the school, the grades would be adjusted to be in line with national standards.

This threat was designed to nudge schools to self-police and prevent grade inflation. Some schools did indeed moderated their centre assessment grades to be in line with their historic averages, others applied a degree of grade inflation to their historic averages, while other still simply submitted the most generous grades they believed their students could have achieved.

For so long as the promise to moderate grades in line with national averages still stood, whichever of the above options schools chose did not matter. However, as soon as the moderation process was abandoned, Ofqual unleashed rampant grade inflation like nothing the country had ever seen.

So, fast forward twelve months and ask teachers to submit grades this year in light of last year’s debacle and you will witness the single biggest live example of game theory ever seen in education. Every school across the world will submit the highest grades possible for every one of their students, simultaneously transferring to Ofqual the burden to prove that students would not have received these grades, something which is unfalsifiable.

Given the choice between the potential for the most significant example of brinksmanship in the history of education (CAGs 2.0) and an imperfect examination system, which option would you choose?

Mike Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College in the UAE.

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