By Dr Stephen Curran, Former government education adviser and education expert
Teenagers who have taken A Level and GCSE exams will now be waiting nervously for their results. They have endured curtailed schooling through the lockdowns and more recently because of teacher strikes. But when they get their results what will they mean?
The problem with exam grading pre-existed the Covid pandemic and in fact can be traced back to 1987.
It was in this year when changes were made in the apportioning of grades. Before then a predetermined percentage of children would get an ‘A’ grade, ‘B’ grade, ‘C’ grade etc. After 1987 grades were awarded by ‘criteria referencing’ – and grade inflation began.
Take ‘A’ levels. In1982 just 8.93 per cent of students received an ‘A’ grade – by 2012 that had risen to 26.6 per cent, which included the A* grade. This new grade had to be introduced because so many were receiving A grades it was impossible to identify the brightest.
Of course, during the lockdowns grade inflation rose dramatically. It was an understandable result of children not taking exams and teachers deciding what grades each student should have.
But it added to the problems of interpreting results. Can you compare exam results today with those the children’s parents took? No. But before 1987 you could compare generations because only 10 per cent would receive an A grade.
This allowed for more accurate appraisals of schools and of teaching. It also enabled the children themselves and their parents to understand how academically bright they were.
In 2016 the number of A level students receiving a ‘C’ grade or above was 77.5 per cent – in 2021 it had leapt to 88.2 per cent because of teachers deciding grades.
Over the Covid period grades were generally about 10 per cent higher than before, and even after Covid they are 6-7 per cent higher.
It seems odd that results should be so much higher since the pandemic when children have spent so long out of schooland had so much of their education has been disrupted.
Can we conclude that children are better educated when they experience less teaching? No, of course not. The entire system needs a recalibration and a return to the pre-1987 method of grading.
Another lesson is that exams should not have been cancelled during the pandemic. I said it at the time. I realised what problems it would cause. I thought schools should have remained open for exams because most children get just one chance at education. And education is the most important thing for their life chances.
What all this means is that universities and employers will be left trying to interpret exam results that are so inflated it will be extremely difficult to judge the academic intelligence of the individuals.
And this is what exam are supposed to be for. Those children waiting for their results have endured a difficult few years and they deserve better.