The Government must act now to reduce significant risks around exam grading this summer, a report warns.
Young people could be harmed and the reputation of England’s qualification awarding process could be damaged if risks are left unmitigated, according to the Education Policy Institute (EPI) think tank.
A paper from EPI warns that learning losses could be masked by the process of using teacher judgments to assess grades, leaving students in further study or work without the skills and knowledge they need.
The think tank is calling on the Government to consider allowing students to repeat a year of education, where this is supported by parents, to tackle extreme cases of learning loss.
It adds that there is a risk of inconsistency and unfairness of grading between different schools and colleges, and between students, as well as a risk of significant grade inflation this year.
The warning comes as the consultation by Ofqual and the Department for Education (DfE), on how A-level and GCSE students will be awarded grades after this summer’s exams were cancelled, is closing.
The grading of students became a fiasco last summer when exams were cancelled amid school closures.
Thousands of A-level students had their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm, before Ofqual announced a U-turn, allowing them to use teachers’ predictions.
In its response to the joint consultation on exams, EPI says schools and colleges need clearer advice and guidance to inform grade setting this year and to take Covid-19 learning loss fairly and consistently into account.
England’s exams regulator is proposing that students could receive their results by the start of July after teachers have assessed their work during a period from May into early June.
Under Ofqual’s plans, teachers would award grades using a range of evidence – which could include coursework, other forms of assessment, papers set externally or papers devised by teachers.
But EPI says final grades should be released in August to allow enough time for quality assurance.
It adds that students in all schools and colleges should take a short, standardised assessment between May and June in most subjects to help assure parents that grading is as fair and consistent as possible.
David Laws, executive chairman of the EPI, said: “While we agree that the government has selected broadly the least worst option on grading in 2021, the risks of a major public policy disaster are still uncomfortably high.
“Asking teachers and schools to set grades themselves in a year of significant and differential learning loss is an extremely challenging task.
“There is a risk of significant grade inflation and, perhaps more worrying, major inconsistency in the way different schools and colleges award grades.
“The clearest possible advice and guidance to schools and colleges, along with intelligent and proportionate quality assurance, are both needed if the grades awarded this year are going to have the credibility and respect which students, parents, employers and education providers will want.”
Natalie Perera, chief executive of the EPI, added: “We must avoid a situation where thousands of students have their futures blighted because although they have respectable grades, they don’t have the mastery of maths, English and practical skills that they will need both in the next stage of education and later on in life.”
A separate report from education think tank EDSK is calling for GCSEs to be scrapped by 2025.
They should be replaced by national computer-based assessments in almost all national curriculum subjects at age 15, the report says.
Under the think tank’s proposals, each student would be awarded a “certificate” that documents the results they have achieved, but no letter or number-based grades would be issued.
Tom Richmond, director of EDSK and a former ministerial adviser at the DfE, said the unprecedented events of the pandemic have created “a rare opportunity” to review the exams system.
A DfE spokeswoman said: “Exams are the fairest and most accurate way to measure pupils’ attainment, and GCSEs ensure pupils have a sound knowledge base that prepares them for further study or employment.
“We have no current plans to reform GCSEs.
“The impact of the pandemic means it won’t be possible to hold exams fairly this year, and the department is working closely with Ofqual and the sector on arrangements to make sure young people can receive a grade that reflects their hard work and enables them to progress.”