Last week, Independent Education Today reported the findings of a survey from the internet forum Mumsnet in which respondents gave an unsurprisingly damming verdict of the centre-assessed grades (CAGs) of 2020.
Seventy-three per cent labelled the CAGs process — with its ‘mutant’ algorithm and the subsequent government U-turn — unfair. The survey also revealed that 54% of respondents thought the process of awarding teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) this year is similarly unfair.
This figure is especially remarkable as the TAGs process has not yet reached its conclusion. How can the fairness of any process be judged accurately if its outcome is not known? Will knowing the outcomes change the perception of unfairness?
Last academic year, the government had its hands burnt by a CAGs process characterised by dither, delay and, ultimately, calculated inhumanity on the part of politicians. To escape any ire this year, the education secretary put teachers front and centre of the TAGs process. The nomenclature of the grades leaves no doubt where the responsibility for them lies.
Gavin Williamson underscored teachers centrality in the TAGs process in the Times Educational Supplement stating that he ‘trusted teachers’ to know what evidence to use and he trusted their judgement on grades, urging pupils and their parents to do the same.
Against this backdrop, there are two reasons why TAGs might be perceived to be unfair even before the results are known.
Teachers’ central role
The first, as paradoxical as it may sound, arises from teachers’ central role this year, and the concomitant potential for bias that this might bring.
In 2021, teachers are not operating at the remove that is usually offered by the public examination system. Ordinarily, exam scripts are marked by teacher-examiners who are not personally invested in the lives of the pupils whose scripts they are marking. In fact, it is now standard practice for each question or section of an examination paper to be marked by different teacher-examiners: the apotheosis of objective and consistent assessment.
Conversely, a recent study by Queen’s University Belfast, Goldsmiths University of London, and Sirius University of Science and Technology in Russia found that when marking the exams of pupils whom they know — as is the situation with TAGs — teachers were inclined to be up to 10% more generous, especially when they have an ‘agreeable personality’. The research suggests that the same is true in reverse.
Schools have worked hard to institute a series of measures […] found to reduce the negative impact of any bias
To help guard against any accusations of bias, then, all TAGs must be rooted in objectively marked sources of evidence. However, the way that teachers were asked to use this evidence holistically when reaching a final grade has the potential to introduce an unhelpful level of subjectivity into the process.
Nonetheless, schools have worked hard to institute a series of measures that the aforementioned study found to reduce the negative impact of any bias. Unconscious bias and objectivity training, double marking, robust internal standardisation and SLT-led quality assurance processes are just a few widely used examples.
We should, therefore, not be afraid to discuss these processes with pupils and parents to ensure that the TAGs command the confidence they deserve.
Questions over consistency
The second reason that TAGs have been already styled as unfair relates to questions of consistency.
To account for the uneven nature of the disruption wrought by the pandemic, and certainly reflecting Williamson’s aphorism to ‘trust teachers’, the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) produced guidance that was beset by ambiguity. Here are just four examples:
- Teachers were asked to judge whether ‘sufficient content’ has been taught in the absence of any mandated minimum requirement.
- Teachers were told that the evidence used to award TAGs had to be consistent within classes unless specific circumstances meant that the evidence did not ‘reflect a pupil’s usual level of performance’. Teachers were not given clear guidance on what these ‘specific circumstances’ might be until relatively late in the process via a frequently updated but somewhat hidden FAQ document.
- There was an ‘anything goes’ approach to what could be used as evidence. Teachers had the option of using formal additional assessment materials provided by the examination boards (which were published online in the interests of parity, a decision which also undoubtedly led to overperformance in some cases), authenticated homework, classwork, informal test scores, etc. This miscellany meant that some pupils sat formal assessments in school halls while others did not.
- Teachers were told to weigh different pieces of work consistently between pupils in the final holistic TAG judgment, in a way which reflected the level of control that they were produced in, but which did not rely on a formulaic calculation.
One assumes that this ambiguity was the result of good intentions to give schools the wiggle room to adapt the guidance to their experiences and contexts. But it is easy to see how parents who are comparing notes with their family members, friends and colleagues could characterise any divergence in approach as unfair.
A sage teacher on Twitter was right when they wrote that parents ‘will not necessarily know whether their child is advantaged or disadvantaged by this process yet. Nevertheless, recognising the variety in the process as ‘unfair’ is OK for now.’
Given this characterisation, schools are going to have to work hard in August — presumably in the absence of any advocacy from the Department of Education — to convince all stakeholders that they operated within the spirit of the guidance, and that they were cognisant of pupils’ best interests at each stage.
While it might not assuage pupil or parental concerns, it is also important to remember that public examinations are not exactly a paragon of fairness. Indeed, Dame Glenys Stacey — the ex-chief regulator of Ofqual: the organisation who oversees the examination boards — acknowledged that exam results are only ever ‘reliable to one grade either way’. Yet there is also a sense in which the debate around the fairness of any form of assessment misses the point. The main problem, more often, is the stakes attached to it.
At the time of writing, it remains to be seen how further and higher education institutions will respond to TAGs given the near certainty of wide-scale national grade inflation. It is notable, nonetheless, that there was a shift in earlier drafts of the overarching principles provided to JCQ by Ofqual.
It is easy to see how parents who are comparing notes with their family members, friends and colleagues could characterise any divergence in approach as unfair
Their original direction which asked teachers to award grades that covered enough content to ensure ‘progression in that subject’ was changed to something much more nebulous: teachers were asked, ultimately, to ensure that pupils had covered enough content to ‘form the basis of a grade’.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, recently told MPs that he expects a large number of appeals from unhappy pupils, parents and guardians. Given the Mumsnet survey results, he may be right.
There is just as much of a chance, however, that significant grade inflation at a national level — because of good faith judgements on behalf of teachers and as a result of the positive gains of a modular approach to assessment — may limit further accusations of unfairness. In tandem, it also may suppress the number of appeals that schools are left to administer.
Either way, the Department of Education will have realised the endgame, which a cynic might say, that they desired all along. What better way to demonstrate that ‘this is what happens when you trust teachers’, evade any responsibility, and, by proxy, sustain support for public examinations, than either significant national grade inflation or a slew of appeals.
In each case, the seemingly light touch nature of the external quality assurance carried out by examination boards ensures that teachers and their schools will continue to bear the brunt of the responsibility for TAGs after they are published.
Whatever happens in the weeks to come, though, the politicking should not be allowed to diminish the achievements of the pupils who worked hard amongst the chaos of the pandemic to demonstrate their abilities. Nor should any fallout from TAGs eclipse the Herculean ‘good faith’ efforts of all the teachers who made the process happen in the busiest of academic years in recent memory.
Follow Dr Philip Purvis on Twitter @CroydonHighDHA