Grading GCSE’s and A-level’s as cancelled exams cause upset

Posted on September, 2020

Exams cancelled!

Although major economic, educational, and societal setbacks have taken place as a result of coronavirus, it has created the conditions by which we have a rare opportunity to examine the current assessment regime in the UK.  As cancelled exams cause major upset and uncertainty with parents and children alike, the road ahead looks like a very uncertain one for the next year or two.

Students would have ordinarily taken their 2021 exams at GCSE and A-Level across June and July, and received their results in August. These results typically determine whether they receive places in their chosen sixth form colleges or universities.

Empty examination room during the pandemic due to cancelled exams

The pandemic has thrown the status quo out of the window; it is practically impossible for students to ‘socially distance’ for 2021 exams. Ofqual has recently conducted an Ofqual consultation and published guidance on how these qualifications are to be awarded; however, they are unable to compel exam boards to issue examinations. Exams boards have cancelled exams for 2021.

Incentives in the Assessment System

Education systems have a unique economy. They have actors with many different incentives. It is important to look at the incentives to understand the system.

Classroom of students before the pandemic, studying for 2021 exams

Examination Boards

Examination boards such as Edexcel, AQA, and OCR, have significant financial incentives. Edexcel, the largest exam board, used to be a charitable organisation. Now, it is a highly-profitable business. Furthermore, examination boards such as AQA and OCR have charitable status, granting them significant tax advantages. See annual financial reports of the three major exam boards here: AQA, OCR, and Edexcel.

A system of private examination boards has both negative and positive effects:

Positive effects:

  • Examination boards compete on accuracy as they cannot afford to diminish their reputation.
  • Examination boards are on their guidance so that examiners can award marks fairly.
  • Schools can select exams that may suit their set of students.
  • Examination boards have to be as consistent in their guidance.
  • Examination boards need to produce excellent resources that can appeal to teachers and students.

Negative effects:

  • Examination boards have an incentive to generate a high number of passes as schools are their main clients, and schools want to improve their results.
  • Schools can select boards tactically to increase their pass rate (in theory).
  • Examination boards are unequal when in terms of resources and expertise, so the system may become more monopolised.
  • As there are commercial incentives for the exam boards, they produce resources with profit in mind. This leads to the quality of support across subjects varying according to their commercial viability.
  • Examination boards have an incentive to be formulaic across their papers. This helps them attract customers and helps them produce resources more efficiently.

Politicians and the Media

London during the Pandemic

Politicians usually end up criticising the rigour of the previous education system or talking about grade inflation (the trend describing how grades go up over time). They will, however, use statistics to validate their point. Statistics are often used in baffling ways, but that is for a whole different post!

The problem with turning education into a political contest is that the students are forced to adapt to whichever prevailing ideology takes root. Politicians use examinations as the main instrument of change. The casualties are the first and second set of students that encounter the reforms, as there is usually a lack of guidance, past papers, and other resources.

The issue with using examinations and assessments as both the instrument and evidence of change is they represent only a microcosm of education. This is one of the reasons why there has been so much panic throughout this Pandemic over how grades will be assigned at GCSE and A-Level 2021 exams; we are dependent on exams to inform us about the level of a student’s competence.

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Examinations: the good and the bad

An empty examination room ready for 2021 exams that will be left empty.

Consider some of the relative strengths and weaknesses of examinations.


  • If administered fairly without leaks or cheating taking place, exams allow students to shine.
  • Examinations provide data about the levels of students.
  • They allow students enough time to prepare optimally.
  • There are often foundation papers available for those who struggle with subjects.
  • There are mitigation processes in place for those who have had issues during the examination process.
  • They provide tangible evidence of subject-knowledge for employers and further education establishments.
  • Students feel motivated to work towards a goal. A high grade, in some cases, acts as a strong motivator.
  • Papers are double-marked to catch mistakes made by examiners.


  • Access to additional educational resources such as books, exam papers, tutors, etc. increases the chances of exam success. This means that wealthier students have a competitive advantage.
  • Some students with anxiety or stress may struggle to perform under exam conditions, even if they have strong subject knowledge.
  • Different exam formats seem to suit different students. This may hinder or benefit students depending on the situation.
  • Some subjects (especially the sciences) offer quite a diverse selection of exams, which means that the students will differ in some areas of their subject-knowledge.
  • The examiners who remark papers are also imperfect.

The Ofqual Consultation

Ofqual conducted the Ofqual Consultation which listened to the views of students, parents and educational experts on how cancelled exams should be graded in the Pandemic.  The recommendation of the Ofqual Consultation for 2021 exams is to award most of the responsibility in assigning GCSE and A-Level grades of cancelled exams to teachers. Teachers have to consider their students’ past performances in order to reach a decision on their final grades. Teachers have to predict what students would have achieved had they been able to take their 2021 exams.

Student hoping that the outcomes of the Ofqual consultation will give them the grades they want during this pandemic

As the 2021 exams are cancelled, teachers will have to base their grades on previous evidence, including classwork, homework, previous test scores and mocks. They will also use predicted grades. Of course, teachers have a strong incentive to award all their students with top grades, but this is where moderation will step in. Teachers will also need to rank their class students. This means that even if a teacher assigns his or her entire class the top grade ‘9’ at GCSE or A* at A-Level, they would be unlikely to all receive that grade as class ranking will have an impact on the final grade.

The bell curve which is being used to grade exams in the pandemic as a result of the ofqual consultation

Standardised scores

The Ofqual consultation, also says that grades will be standardised across subjects. This means that the scores of candidates will be recalculated to reflect their deviations (divergence) from the mean score (more technical information here), plotted on a distribution curve, and then students will have their grades returned to them. See the maths GCSE grade distribution on the right. You should be able to tell that if the results form a curve with many candidates achieving grades 5s and 6s, and far fewer candidates at the tails of the distributions: 9s and 1s.

Maths Gsces grades showing a bell-curve distrubtion which has been considered by the Ofqual consultation

Taken from School’s Week

Probably the main problem with the Ofqual consultation recommendations is that teachers supplying the grades for cancelled exams will have implicit bias. Implicit biases are unconscious attitudes or stereotypes that affect our decision-making. Even if teachers believe that they hold no biases against or in favour of students, they likely have a degree of prejudice which will affect 2021 exams.

Implicit biases

During my undergraduate degree, I remember reading about how implicit biases affect our everyday decision-making. You can check your own prejudices using this implicit bias test:

Take the Implicit Association Test to see what implicit biases you hold.

These implicit biases will likely have some impact on the grades of the final candidates. This is also another reason why exams are generally preferable to predicted grades. An examiner’s implicit biases are somewhat reduced if he/she does not know the candidate’s name and other details. Even having a name will immediately bring about some assumptions.  For example, if you are given three names: Rochelle, Olajumoke and Wilhemina. What do you associate with each name? This is human nature as we all will have biases even though we may not be aware of them. So, instead, the candidate number negates these biases.

If you want to find out more about your unconscious mind I strongly recommend the book, Strangers to Ourselves by Timothy Wilson (below) – it is packed with information and psychological case studies.

Many students have lost their focus as they do not have an exam to work towards. We have noticed that students who were working towards the 2021 exams have relaxed considerably since the cancelled exams. This has been my main concern. Students who tend to have a lot more educational issues have started falling even more behind the students who are already strong academically. GCSE students who were sitting the foundation papers lost their focus first.

Conclusion: Cancelled exams

Creating an education system with a ‘rigorous’ assessment regime is no easy challenge. It would probably involve taking exams, alongside other forms of assessment. Continual assessment throughout the year via exams, coursework, and weekly work could make the system stronger. It may help students improve their understanding of the subjects. Tasks that encourage enterprise, creative projects and gaining more technical skills through project-based work, could also be added making education more engaging. It would also make schoolwork applicable to the workplace.

As a result of cancelled exams, for the students themselves, I would like to say this: If you do not receive the grades you expected, do not blame yourself unduly. These are exceptional events for exceptional times, and there is always a path to success. Use this time to gain skills and knowledge, and focus on discovering the routes that can bring you success in the future. Read often, take a keen interest in the world around you, and engage yourself in significant social relationships.

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