by Miriam Cates
Wednesday, 11
August 2021
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10:56

In defence of lockdown grade inflation

Teachers can't be expected to predict which pupils underperform their potential
by Miriam Cates
Teachers are experts in seeing children’s potential. Credit: Getty

This week’s A level and GCSE results seem pretty scandalous, with dramatic grade inflation over lockdown seeing nearly half of students awarded the top A* and A grades. The results threaten public confidence in our examination system and will no doubt create some serious headaches for university admissions tutors.

But on reflection I think it’s the right outcome. Here’s why.

Grades for the past two years have been based on teacher assessments following the cancellation of exams.

In the best of times, exams are useful because they are objective, but they are never “fair”. As a former teacher, I can vouch for the fact that the best students do not always get the best grades; pressure, personal circumstances and even bad luck result in grades being dropped for a certain number of students. I myself turned up to my GCSE physics exam to find it was actually economics and I’d read the timetable wrong — a stupid mistake, but impossible to foresee in advance.

Statistically, over a large cohort of students, similar numbers will over- and underachieve each year. But these anomalies cannot be predicted at an individual level.

Credit: BBC

Teachers really are experts in seeing children’s potential. If asked to assess a student, they will award a grade that reflects the best of that pupil’s ability — which will in many instances be a more generous assessment than what would have been achieved in an external exam. It might be statistically certain that some students in each class will underperform their potential, but how can a teacher decide which students that will be? If no pupils are downgraded, the inevitable result is grade inflation.

Last summer, Ofqual attempted to mitigate against the inflationary effect of Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) using a complex algorithm. The logic behind this was sound, but it was poorly executed and it was followed by a national outcry as heart-breaking individual stories emerged.

Of course there are many exam disasters every year, but you can’t leave it to a computer algorithm to assign the bad luck — it understandably seemed arbitrary and cruel. As a result, the code was abandoned and Ofqual opted for straightforward TAGs this year.

The situation is far from ideal, but given the school closures and exam cancellations I personally can’t see an alternative. We have forced our young people to bear an almost unimaginable cost during the pandemic, and we can’t ask them to sacrifice any more. If that means one-off grade inflation then so be it.

Miriam Cates is MP for Penistone and Stockbridge

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John Montague
John Montague
1 year ago

“I’d read the timetable wrong — a stupid mistake, but impossible to foresee in advance.”…… erm… surely that statement is literally an oxymoron. The very purpose of a printed timetable is to foresee the schedule so you don’t turn up to the wrong exam. If the schedule has been read correctly then no mistake would have been made. I might be being a little harsh but that right there qualifies down to a B, or maybe just an A.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  John Montague

Well yes. If you can’t read, remember, or observe an exam schedule, you’ve sort of failed the little meta-test of cognitive skill right there.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago
Reply to  John Montague

Beggars belief, doesn’t it.

Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
1 year ago
Reply to  John Montague

She means, impossible to be foreseen by the examining body.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

They don’t need to foresee anything though. They just mark the paper. If Bozo the Clown hasn’t prepared for it the grade given reflects as much.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  John Montague

I basically dropped out of school, leaving almost unable to write, could not spell to a 8 year old level, failed almost all my classes by refusing to do any homework on principal, and missing at least 1/3 of classes… basically the school and I had come to a sort of truce where they left me alone and I left them alone…. But I was in the top end for intelligence and world knowledge and reading books on my own…

So If my last two years had been this above, marks purely subjective, I suppose I could have walked with A* s as my attitude would have been good, and I was pretty bright other than the fact I did not do the exams or homework…

And so I might have ended doing a top university, and so became some weird academic somewhere, or some wealthy Barrister – instead of a drifter and tradesman. Life is unfair sometimes.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

Had to pick myself up from the floor after reading this.
This sounds like a wonky woke experiment that is being posited as the best way forward, but no – the experiment has been already done and it has failed, yet we are reading about a teacher defending it and suggesting this is the best way forward?
Subjectivity (the opposite of the objectivity the author mentions) dramatically altered objective grading results. The children themselves will bear the brunt, as their results have been discredited forever and the worst affected will be those outstanding scholars who actually deserve to stand head and shoulders above the others, be this in respect of ability, hard work or a combination of both.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

The trouble with this reasoning is that it is arguing for giving top grades to pupils who haven’t earned them. This is very unfair to pupils who actually did earn them.
Why not just give everyone an A*? That would the fairest thing of all wouldn’t it?

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes … “Teachers can’t be expected to predict which pupils underperform their potential” … under that logic, no mark below ‘A’ can be allowed.

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I think the argument is firstly that exams are not perfect either, pupils underperform on the day, it is all or nothing, they can’t recover from a bad start etc. Surely anyone who has ever done any public exams has seen examples of this.

And then, we didn’t have the benefit of exams anyway (rightly or wrongly) so needed a least worse alternative. A computer algorithm that gave weight to the historical results of a school could be extremely unfair to individual people.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Graeme Laws
Graeme Laws
1 year ago

Asking teachers to mark their own homework is bound to lead to grade inflation and isn’t fair on them or their pupils. Grade inflation is also rampant in Universities, many of which are now populated by students who will derive little benefit from their degrees. Come the day, young people have to confront the real world, where competing for work, housing, and partners means that from time to time they will have to deal with losing, and accept that life wasn’t meant to be fair. If the education system is not helping them to confront these realities, it is doing them no favours.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
1 year ago

Surely the most sensible approach would have been to lower the overall gradings a notch to reflect the fact that teaching and learning were hampered by the effects on schools and pupils of the pandemic. The grades could have come with a caveat so that unis and employers could make allowances. All inflation has done is to discredit the lot, as well as calling traditional face-to-face teaching methods into question.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  GA Woolley

I don’t know why they don’t just identify percentiles. Top 1%, top 3%, and top 10% would identify Oxbridge / Russell Group material. Bottom 10% would identify those suited to a climate science degree.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Bottom 50% suited to Teacher Training, as always.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I agree. This would solve the problem of grade inflation. This is a hobby horse of mine. I suggested this on Twitter 2 days ago and both academics and teachers agreed. I’ve never heard this discussed. I guess the objection is that pupils’ feelings might be hurt. A ranking is a stark measure. Blurring it with grades lessens the psychological impact.
It would also have the benefit of allowing exams to include questions of increasing difficulty, so the best students would be challenged and only a minuscule proportion would get full marks.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago

It would also avoid the potential problem of the exam being inadvertently harder from one year to the next. If you gave people a number, such as a percentage score, the number could be inconsistent from one year to the next. A forced ranking – which is what most private companies use for work performance appraisal – would create the same percentiles every year regardless.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes, Cambridge, for example could stipulate top 3% and be confident of their intake predictions. There appears to be a deep-seated philosophical objection to grading by percentiles (why it was abolished in the 80s might give us the answer) and it’s causing no end of completely avoidable problems.

William MacDougall
William MacDougall
1 year ago

Two years of A level results have been rendered meaningless by teacher assessment and grade inflation. The function of A levels is not to reward effort but to measure achievement, to distinguish those who have learnt a lot from those who haven’t. Grades should be lower this year if, as seems likely, pupils have learnt less, not higher. The teachers aren’t at fault; it’s all the result of the Education Minister’s incompetence. There is no reason why exams could not safely have been conducted in large halls last year, and certainly this year.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
1 year ago

What did the unions have to do with the decision? Anything?

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

Unions refused to let the teachers to be near students as it made them get off the sofa and away from the beaches.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 year ago

Of course all teachers are saints. That’s why they would never do anything to further their own interests. Such as claim that their students are making more progress than they are due to the excellent teaching they are receiving. Or hide the lack of progress being made by struggling students, a lack of progress that would necessitate intervention and all the extra work that that entails.
I would expect that sort of claptrap from a Labour MP. That it comes from a Tory is frightening.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago

Yes. I suppose it is rare to see a Tory with a background in state school teaching rather than private school education, corporate finance, banking or law. Hence, a different perspective.

Eleanor Barlow
Eleanor Barlow
1 year ago

This article omits to mention that schools and colleges are judged by their exam results, and teachers are judged by their individual performance. Therefore there is every incentive for them to give pupils the benefit of the doubt and inflate results rather than lower them during this period of teacher assessment. Their jobs and career development may well depend upon it. I don’t have anything against teachers – but having worked in the public sector myself – I can remember all the lengths we went to to ensure we were apparently meeting our targets. Usually these targest are set by civil servants who haven’t a clue what the realities of the job are, so they are usually unrealistic.
I put this thought to two friends who are recently retired teachers and they agreed with me. They also agreed with me that the exam system in the UK is losing credibility.

Benedict Waterson
Benedict Waterson
1 year ago

Better teachers might have taught that girl how to write a legible ‘W’

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

I looked at that a wile and it is a M, no way it is a W. So I googled it to see what it means and the only thing there is the name of the Radio Station in Nome Alaska in KNOM. Pretty cryptic a sign, likely one of those hyper bright students who do badly at exams and deserved her A*.

JP Martin
JP Martin
1 year ago

There can be no such thing as “one-off grade inflation” in the context of decades-long grade inflation. Two wrongs don’t make a right and I agree that this year’s applicants shouldn’t suffer. But let’s not kid ourselves; the rot set in ages ago. And it carries over to universities– at some universities, 40% of graduates receive a first.

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
1 year ago
Reply to  JP Martin

I am pretty sure this is a consequence partly of Blair’s 50% target but also of the social engineering going on at places like Oxbridge.
In both cases, people are being let in who don’t have the A-Levels but who put bums on seats or, in Oxbridge’s case, meet their requirement for more comprehensive school kids at the expense of properly educated ones. This is accomplished by giving them lower A-Level offers.
The best predictor of degree result is A Level result, so rather than fail all these entrants, they lower the pass mark for their degrees. As a result, the ones who in the past would have got 2:iis and 3rds now get 2:1s.
When I was at Cambridge the mode degree class was 2:ii. Something like 55% got one; about 5% got a 3rd or worse, 30% got a 2:i and maybe 10% got a First. It’s now something like 80% getting a 2:i or better, presumably to accommodate all the socially-favoured entrants who aren’t up to it.

JP Martin
JP Martin
1 year ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Yes. They destroyed the grammar schools, turned all the polys into unis, and flooded the system with unprepared students. The dysfunction is systemic and multilayered.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

It wasn’t one off grade inflation. This was the second year, and incredibly it was worse. There are serious consequences for university classes containing 520 students rather than the planned for 365, but that won’t bother the MP. When the students are sttting at home watching videos, ask yourself why. It may be because there are too few lecture theatres large enough to accommodate them.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
1 year ago

“Teachers really are experts in seeing children’s potential.” I remember being put down as borderline for the 11 plus and then receiving one of the highest marks for the exam that year. I also remember being predicted a mix of Bs and Cs for my A levels, and ending up with 4 As. From personal experience this is arrant nonsense. Teachers are experts in seeing potential in children that they like and have the right personal traits to brownnose them.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago

Another factor – with all the remote teaching and time spent isolating over the last two years, the group of students who just got their A-level results know their teachers far less well than probably any other in history.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

As universities have limited capacity, they need their applicants to be ranked. The optimal method would by percentiles: in the top 7-8%, you get grade 8, etc. A levels were once reasonable efficient when perhaps the top 10% scored an A, however the students actually performed; but now universities have no basis to decide on who is admitted. That’s why grade inflation is important. I don’t care if 45% get an A: good for them, but it has no bearing on the real world, apart from screwing it up.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
1 year ago

I see Jon Redman has made the same suggestion and got 10 thumbs up.That’s heartening.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
1 year ago

‘One off’ – you heard it here first.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago

Good to read someone who knows what they are talking about reflect the fact that the point of the education system is to support help, educate and encourage people rather than ranking them according to potential economic value.