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Paul Vallely: Time to ask: What are exams for? (Give evidence)

13 August 2021

Lessons need to be learnt from this year’s A-level results, argues Paul Vallely


Deep questions: teacher assessment or exams?

Deep questions: teacher assessment or exams?

THE news that almost half of all the students who sat A levels have got an A* or A grade has been greeted with the usual complaints about grade inflation. Certainly, this year’s 44.8-per-cent figure is significantly up on last year’s 38.5 per cent. And that was, in itself, a big hike from the last time exams were actually sat, in 2019, when only one quarter of students did so well. But it is all a bit more complicated than that.

Many commentators insist that higher grades are always a bad thing. They must show that exams are getting easier. Students cannot all be getting cleverer, year on year, insist pundits such as the contrarian Rod Liddle, whose most recent column suggested that “A now stands for Airhead.” Takes one to know one, Rod.

Defenders of this year’s results point to the unprecedented problems of Covid-19: lockdowns, remote learning, and periods of self-isolation. A “demographic bulge” means that the number of 18-year-olds has increased. So has the proportion applying to university. Anyway, admissions officers, knowing all this, have made fewer offers to avoid having to take on thousands of extra additional students, as they had unexpectedly to do last year.

Yet all this raises the deeper question what exams are for. Part of this current grade inflation comes from the fact that grades were assessed by the students’ own teachers. Candidates were marked on what they had covered, not what they missed. That is in contrast to a normal year, when some capable students, who have worked well throughout the course, fail because of nerves, bad luck, misadventure, or ill health on exam day. This year they got the grades that their whole year’s work merited.

That kind of inflation is surely not something to be condemned, if we think that education is about enabling everyone to do their best. Failing because of one bad day makes sense only if the purpose of exams is, as it has been in the past, to act as a series of sieves to filter out the elite who will run the country. If we have developed a more enlightened attitude to education, then it is time that we did the same with our system of assessment.

There are, of course, disadvantages to any system. Teacher-assessed grades are prey to inconsistency, especially when some use past papers, others devise special tests, and others use classwork. There will be some teachers who mark with absolute integrity, and others who seek to protect their own reputation or that of their school. But schools can be subjected to external moderation, as one in five were this year, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications. And that scrutiny can be tightened, year by year.

Some might argue that it is valuable to stress-test individuals on their ability to perform under pressure. And yet this year’s system has had its own stresses, as students were forced to face up to the fact that everything that they did, all year, might count towards their final grade. Next year, we should not return to “normal”, but, rather, reflect on the strengths and weaknesses in what we have learnt this year.

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