Grade Inflation is Coming – Time to Blame the Teachers

Back in the first week of 2021 the Department for Education (DfE) announced that the national GCSE and A Level exams, taken by 16- and 18-year-olds in England, would not happen. In their place will be teacher assessed grades (TAGs) – teachers would look at each student's work submitted throughout the two year coursed and come up with a holistic assessment of each child's abilities in each subject. At least that was the plan.

The exams regulator, Ofqual, started work on the process and guidance, but it took them quite some time to decide how this hospital pass from the minister could be handled without repeating the public relations disaster that engulfed Ofqual and the DfE last year. In that event it turned out that some grade A pupils ended up being awarded D or E to satisfy a ministerial requirement that there be no general grade inflation when compared to previous years. The general upwards trend in grades was held in check at a population level at the expense of a whole raft of photogenic pupils who had been thoroughly let down by the algorithm that had been used, even while private schools did very well out of it.

Not My Fault This Year Guv', It's The Teachers

So this year, the responsibility for moderating awarded grades has been delegated to individual schools, with instructions to keep previous grade patterns in mind when generating this years' results. Even with the threat of Ofqual interventions if the grades don't look right to them, this is a tricky task for the schools. The minister in charge, Gavin Williamson, has declared that algorithms should not be used this year: this is of course complete nonsense, but it has had the effect of preventing Ofqual publishing the algorithm they will use to validate school results while Schools have developed ad hoc methods for generating grades. GCSE and A Level grades this year will naturally not now be comparable between schools for the any subject, nor between subjects in the same school.

But it is OK for the minister. He has said that he “trusts teachers” to do a good job and prevent all the biases and mishaps that marred results day in 2020. But we can be sure that when the inevitable grade inflation arrives this year the government will not take an ounce of blame. Teachers are being lined up as the fall guys this year, of course.

Future Perfect

But is this year likely to be a disaster of the same magnitude as a year ago? I think that the personal knowledge of teachers about their own students will prevent individual students from receiving results several grades lower than they deserved simply as a result of exam boards allocating a grade distribution based on previous results in their school regardless of the abilities of this year's cohort. But grade inflation is a certainty.

Teachers make a great effort to build positive personal relationships with their classes. Even if the bias inherent in having teachers mark their own work can be overcome, and if schools can regulate consistency between teachers (and both these requirements seem quite impossible without any standardised structures to guide teachers), other upwards pressures will remain.

In ordinary times, you might have a class from which you'd expect, say, four pupils who could reach a grade 9, but in reality only two will. Exams are not a good discriminator of fine differences at the best of times, but most people accept their lottery-like nature – on the day factors clearly have sizeable effects. But the teacher who is directed to decide which grade each pupil will receive is in an impossible situation if they are to stick to the grade distribution for their class that they might expect in ordinary times. So Ofqual has hinted that in this sort of situation, the teacher may award the higher grade to each pupil who could have reached it.

This effect multiplied over a million classes could mean that the twenty or thirty percent of grades which are reasonably borderline will be 'rounded up', resulting in significant grade inflation.

Will the government have the courage to return to the pre-existing grade levels when the exams resume as normal next year, resulting in an equivalent amount of grade deflation? Will the ministers deflect all blame to the schools and the regulator, Ofqual? Or will they quickly sack a minister who is so incompetent that the only reason for keeping him in post might have been to be able to sacrifice him when the inevitable storm hits again.

The press may decide the teachers are not to blame this time.