Problematic Predicted Grades – A Passing Political Predicament Or A Fundamentally Floored Process?

Thomas Gregory

The weak predicted grade system provided a useless substitute for A Level results, meaning that the government was doomed to fail as soon as it cancelled exams. Rather than standing their ground on the imperfect solution, the government may have lost even more political support and confidence by continuing its trend of U-turns.

The government’s consistently, inconsistent Spaghetti Junction approach to policy-making has made this year even more complicated.

Either a higgledy-piggledy, principle-bending monstrosity or a complex, compromising, problem-mitigating masterpiece, government policy came crashing into the calendar’s annual A-Level moment of mayhem with flying colours.

Problem Number 1: It’s all a rush

I never liked the transition period across A Levels into university. It seemed like I hardly knew which A Levels I wanted to do before I had to decide my future.

Maybe that was just me, burnt out from GCSE’s and rapidly becoming dissident and restless with the relentless insistence on infantilising young adults.

People who would be legally allowed to rear children, drive a car and maybe even vote in national elections but have to tolerate being lectured every day about top buttons and skirt lengths.

Regardless, I was not ready to choose my top 5 universities or agonise over every word of a personal statement at the same time as bossing my mocks. But, by test, request or protest, it was time to get decent predicted grades.

Clearing is also always a mad dash for places, a hasty and fickle stab at a university, which will fundamentally change the direction of your life

After all the UCAS shenanigans, from results day to university arrival you only have around a month. Clearing is also always a mad dash for places, a hasty and fickle stab at a university, which will fundamentally change the direction of your life.  Let’s say, the system is not popular.

This time around it was all of that on steroids, but what is the alternative? Should we wait for real exam grades and make universities start in January? Or maybe take exams slightly earlier and reduce A Level content in order to get your grades earlier in the year before applying? It’s a hard one. I’ll leave that one with you.

Problem Number 2: Predicted grades are not moderated across schools

“Do we just give students their predicted grades and be done with it?” Boris said.

“No way! They don’t mean anything. Some schools heavily over-predict, others are sticklers for the rules, that would be totally unfair and disproportionately disadvantage the achievers at stingy schools.

We have to look at average student attainment at each school and balance that against what the schools have awarded as predicted grades. We should probably make the grades slightly higher this year on average too, just to cover our backs.” Gavin Williamson replied.

Well done Gavin, logical choice. Now make it actually work.

And so, it began. Out come the mathematics nerds with their bell curves. They try to even out the predicted grade problem, bringing down those at schools that historically put them too high, and rewarding those that are accurate.

I believe in all of this in principle. My school was strict on predicted grades and generally got them roughly right, however other schools may as well turn U grades upside down and strike a line through it – putting too many people into the clearing nightmare on judgement day.

With this in mind, it would be unfair on those at honest schools if dishonest schools’ claims are taken as gospel.

It would also be unfair on previous years who actually did the exams and did not attain the often-inflated grades given as predictions, as well as the current year 12s who have been royally shafted with less teaching and little exam adjustments.

Thus, it would be theoretically a better choice to balance teacher predictions and school performance in this way

Thus, it would be theoretically a better choice to balance teacher predictions and school performance in this way.

It is with that, out come the results.

The highest proportion of A*s ever and the most C grades and above since 2001.  As and A*s up 2.4%. Generous, but contextually reasonable and politically sensible in my view.

“For the top A* and A grades, independent schools in England saw the greatest improvement on last year – up 4.7 percentage points. This compares with a 1.7, 2 and 0.3 percentage points improvement for top grades for England’s academies, comprehensives and colleges respectively.”

Okay. First off, all groups did better than the year before – a success. Fair enough, the private school students won the day comparatively. For whatever reason the ‘richies’ outperformed other schools.

It may be possible that the schools with the most disadvantaged pupils, who are more likely to perform less well, are the most overzealous predicted grade dealers, and thus got bitten hardest in the algorithms.

This should make you question the schools and their responsibility to be accurate, but also how the government needs to tighten up on, or totally rethink predicted grades. However, the algorithm was ultimately crap because it favoured small class sizes – a private school privilege.

Ideally every UK student should have the access to a school which can allow them to reach their full academic potential

The topic of disadvantage is always cropping up because it’s a very important ongoing debate, but the issue of disadvantage in schools is one for another day. Ideally every UK student should have the access to a school which can allow them to reach their full academic potential.

Ultimately, whoever you are and whatever your background, in every other year, you get rewarded for how well you perform in the same tests (ignoring that some exam boards may be slightly harder than others), and there are certain leg-ups and exceptions for the significantly disadvantaged in university admissions to compensate for the environmental challenges faced.

Some people were also always going to get worse grades than they deserved because, for health reasons or simply not trying, their mock grades were internally known to be lower than their expected A Level outcome.

The government should be fairly criticised for giving out too many Us and did not seem to get their story straight with how they would approach the appeals process using mocks exams, or resists.

Ofqual reasons that it was a mistake to calculate grades at all, and instead students should have taken exams (with social distancing in place), like some countries.

With a moderated predicted grade system, where the grades meant the same across all schools based on something like AS exams, dishing out predicted grades for one year would not be damaging to fellow grade-receivers.

Thus, removing AS exams damaged predicted grades, and this rickety crutch of predicted grades damaged the government.

Problem number 3: Predicted grades have a trend of being far too high

Nearly 40% of predicted grades were downgraded, 3% by 2 grades.

The big stat is that even with grades going up, still nearly 40% of grades were below predicted. The inaccuracy of predicted grades therefore is beyond a joke. What’s the point if they are so wrong?

They certainly can’t be accurately used as a substitute for assessed grades. With this evidence, it is also provably biased against every other year to hand out predicted grades.

Now, here’s the government response to the backlash. Do they sit it out and stick to their principles, creating a robust and free appeal process to allow the cheated what they deserve or prove themselves in a later exam season? Cut their losses and keep those they could on-side?

No. They U-turn (a regular habit now) and let everyone have their predicted grades, even though the statistics about predicted grade inaccuracy are completely damning.

The government’s decision to U-turn on predicted grades was just as unfair as the algorithm, diluting genuine success and brutalising every year that had come before

The government’s decision to U-turn on predicted grades was just as unfair as the algorithm, diluting genuine success and brutalising every year that had come before, compared to screwing over some people in one year.

They have effectively sentenced every person who received their grades in 2020 to employers asking “You got a B? So really a D then?” However, I recognise the damage done to those hard done by in the 2020 A Levels is maybe more relevant than the years gone by; some grades were clearly far too low and limited progression.

Clearly, the damage was already done, they were between a rock and a hard place. The lifeline of an accurate algorithm failed.

The U-turn has now created a secondary wave of carnage on Universities. Previously, there were quite a few clearing places, because coupled with the pandemic, intake has been lower this year.

Instead of limiting university places to maintain the special status of a degree, now universities will be oversubscribed and crowded. This could mean that existing students may receive both fewer in-person seminars this year (because there isn’t enough space to maintain social distancing) and also a decline in real entry standards. Thank you very much. UoN don’t get any ideas.

Regardless of how you think the government should have responded this year, one thing is for certain. If the Conservatives wanted to survive this Spaghetti Junction journey without a car crash, they should have sat socially distanced exams or never removed AS Levels (which would have made predicted grades fair and accurate across the nation, making predicted grades a viable A Level substitute).

The government was destined to fail whichever path was taken

The government was destined to fail whichever path was taken. However, by U-turning all the time, they are showing the governance to be extraordinarily weak in the context of their massive majority.

The ‘2020 Predicted Grades Debacle’ will probably not be one of the systems changed as a result of the pandemic (even though it should), but it has exposed the processes’ floors.

This crisis has also distracted us from the up-and-coming cornerstone of Johnson’s first premiership in office. We are currently on excursion from our staple meal in the media, but soon we will be back in Brexit business. If he doesn’t manage to convince the voters that he made a success of Brexit, (which definitely does not include any erratic U-turns), he’s in for grey hair by 2023.

Thomas Gregory

Featured image courtesy of Kiyun Lee via Unsplash. Image license found hereNo changes were made to this image. 

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