Grades out of thin air

13 August 2020
Today students in the UK got their A-Level results, and reports are that 40% were downgraded. I am not surprised one bit and as things stand grades awarded this year will likely be rendered more or less meaningless, and as things stand anyone who rightly or wrongly failed to make the grades required for their preferred university will be virtually impossible to formally reject. And with the government removing caps for this year's intake, universities will want to just take the extra tuition fee revenue.

The trouble with mock exam results is that, leaving aside potential questions about their authenticity, is that trying to compare ones from different institutions requires making unsafe assumptions. Some schools simply recycle past papers, some try to give a cross-section of topics, some try to bias mock questions towards the topics that are considered more likely, and some will even bias questions towards what they think the students will find difficult. To complicate things further some schools give sub-sets of students in the same subject different papers. Mock results were in the past only ever intended for internal use so they were geared towards internal motivations, which has sometimes included nefarious intentions such as deciding who to force to drop subjects in order to flatter league table rankings.

Even with honest intentions on part of the teachers and their institutions, there are also assumptions about how seriously the students take them. I did notably badly in my Chemistry mock exam because it coincided with some real exams, which as far as I was concerned were the priority. As it happened the Maths exam I directed my efforts towards would becomes my single best A-Level module result. For me the “mock” exams were just another set of practice papers, as this was at a time when I was doing a past paper or two a week for homework.

As for using predicted grades that was asking for trouble from the outset. At least at some schools there is a clear optimism bias, but for subjects that are exam-based rather than having continuous assessment teachers may not actually have much to work on. Time spent testing and assessing is time not spent doing stuff like experiments that are what students ultimately learn from. After two decades most of the chemistry I still remember is related to making substances such as T.N.T. and nitrogen triiodide, which I doubt would have been covered with an exam-centric reading of the syllabus. In my own case the number of UCAS points I was predicted was spot on, but the individual subject predictions had issues — I screwed up some Physics modules but the Maths ones were way better than anything I hoped for.

In the end this could be the final nail in the coffin for university admissions based on A-Level grades. Contextualised offers allowing lower than usual admission grades for widening-participation purposes in itself already called into question the verecity of using A-Level grades as a differentiator of underlying ability, and now there is an incoming cohort for which grades may as well be made up. Longer-term universities are going to have to take all this assessment in-house, which means being generous with who is let into the first year but quid-pro-quo also accepting a large first-year flunk rate.