Consequences of exam cancellations

Will inequalities between students increase?  
Artwork
Artwork "Park/Parking" by Banksy

In England, summer exams have been definitively cancelled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Grades for important qualifications will be calculated using a new system that takes into account a range of factors, including mock exam performance. This approach is likely to disadvantage some students more than others, but if schools are provided with adequate guidance, they may be able to reduce those disadvantages.

England’s Department for Education has announced the cancellation of GCSE and A level exams (for 16- and 18-year-olds respectively) which were due to take place this summer. These exams are really important in students’ lives as they help to determine which courses and careers they can pursue. This year, students will instead be given a calculated grade, which the Department for Education says will be based on assessment of the likely grade they would have received, had the exams gone ahead.

“From my own time in school, I remember mock exams as an opportunity to be shocked into realising how much work is still needed.”

The announcement may be a cause for celebration for some students, who can now take some time to relax and adjust to the new situation as they do their best to learn from home. But for other students, the news may be a source of anxiety that persists until grades are awarded – what if they hadn’t performed well so far, but had planned to pull out all the stops at the last minute?

Prior attainment and mock exam results will be part of the calculation. A secondary school teacher told me that some students will have under-performed in their mocks: “Students often have a lot of other pressures when mock exams take place, like coursework and lessons, whereas before the real exams they are able to fully focus”. From my own time in school, I remember mock exams as an opportunity to be shocked into realising how much work is still needed – and this certainly applied to some of us more than others.

Even more concerning is the fact that students from a disadvantaged background are more likely to have their grades under-predicted, as acknowledged by the Department for Education. What’s more, these under-predictions disproportionately impact black and minority ethnic (BAME) students, as teachers can have lower expectations of these students. It is likely that under-predictions have a very real impact on disadvantaged and BAME students, who are less likely to be offered a place at the top universities.

“Perhaps this is even a chance for schools, colleges, and universities to closely examine the fairness and transparency of their grading and admissions procedures, so that after the pandemic, practices are more equitable than they were before.”

Students will have the option to appeal their grades, or to sit an exam as soon as possible if they are not happy with what they have been awarded. But this may be little comfort, as students are likely to have embarked on the next chapter of their lives by then. Decisions such as what subjects to study at college, which university to attend, or what job will be offered will have been made based on those grades.

There is a call for teachers to be provided with additional guidance and support that will help them to predict grades as fairly and transparently as possible so that BAME and working class students don’t miss out. The call also urges universities to ensure that admissions procedures are not biased.

Hopefully this call will be taken seriously, helping all students to get a fair grade. Perhaps this is even a chance for schools, colleges, and universities to closely examine the fairness and transparency of their grading and admissions procedures, so that after the pandemic, practices are more equitable than they were before.

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