If Ofqual Can Decide Grade Boundaries, What Does That Mean For Teachers?

14th February 2013

The court judgement confirms that Ofqual has the absolute right to ensure comparable outcomes of GCSE scores between cohorts and across time. Doing so, however, means exam board decisions can be over-ruled. A student can hand in work that meets the described criteria for a C grade (and for which Cs have previously been awarded), the teacher can give it the marks linked to a C grade, the exam board can agree it got marks deemed worthy of a C grade but if when the exam board adds up all the results, the grades are higher than expected based on previous cohort data then Ofqual can require the exam board to move grade boundaries and the work no longer stays as a C. For the sake of ensuring ‘comparable outcomes’ it becomes a D.

The judge understood the inherent unfairness of this. In fact, they summed: “Whichever way (Ofqual) chose to resolve the problem, there was going to be an element of unfairness”. If Ofqual had maintained standards in 2012 then the 2013 cohort would have been more harshly judged and that would have been unfair in comparison to the 2012s. The problem, it seems, was caused the structure of the qualification and its particular combination with the requirement on Ofqual to maintain comparable outcomes. People can argue ad infinitum about whose fault comparable outcomes was.

But none of this really matters. Whether it was Gove, or Balls, fair or not. It has happened. What matters now is the implications of this judgement for teachers and students in schools.

Here’s the problem: Teachers are required to predict grades. We’re constantly at it. Colleges want predictions, so do exam boards, so do parents, pupils, governors, heads of departments. Predictions matter quite a lot too. Colleges make admissions based on them. Support is targeted at students because of them. Department monitoring and, in future, possibly even pay will be linked to them.  But if Ofqual can fiddle about with grade boundaries to any extent necessary in order to make sure grades are ‘comparable’ to previous data then how can teachers accurately predict what a student’s work is worth? Simple: they can’t.

Some will say this is a good thing. If teachers can’t accurately predict, they can’t ‘game’ the system and instead must just focus on getting each and every child the best possible grade. After all, teachers shouldn’t be attempting to shove children over the C/D borderline (and soon new government measures will stop encouraging this anyway).

That’s great in principle, but it doesn’t solve the 6th form admission problem. Nor the targeting one.

While it would be wonderful if every pupil was equally supported in getting their best grades, schools – like hospitals – are a public service with finite resources. Targeting, inevitably, happens.  If a student is on the knife-edge of getting a C, and therefore of going to college nor not going, that tends to unquestionably be where resourcing goes. And the reason that people tend to focus on the C is in part because it’s where the government has focused its performance measure, but also because getting that grade makes a profound difference to a student’s further education choices.

However, even if teachers start looking at all pupils across the spectrum, it’s still the case that resources need to be targeted at those underperforming but if rules keep changing on grading then it becomes difficult to know who is at risk of underperforming. If a student expected to get a B is handing in work thought to be a B they are not likely to get more support. If they hand in work around a D then they will. But if the grades can be moved around that student handing in the B work might suddenly find themselves on a C. Does such targeting mean resources are distributed unequally? Yes. Is that unfair? Possibly. But in a world of limited resources it’s hard to know what else to do. However, if the government is now saying it no longer wants such targeting (and given the Ofqual decision it now becomes very difficult to target accurately) then that needs to be clearly spelled out.

There are consequences for saying that all pupils should be equally supported though. At present there is a big push to equalise achievements between FSM and non-FSM pupils. To make up for the fact that many FSM students enter school with lower grades teachers will often work out who in this group is underperforming and will provide extra intervention. But, again,  if schools can no longer work out who is ‘at risk’ of not getting their target grade targeting underperforming FSM students becomes tricky. Some will say this means no-one will targeted, hurray! But I rather fear what will happen is that resources will go to the most sharp-elbowed rather than the most in need. And I’m not at all convinced  that’s a better state of affairs.

GCSE reform will help a little. Getting rid of modularisation and limiting controlled assessments will mean schools have less information and less ‘boundary pushing’ can happen. Exam grading has always varied more widely – though exam-only subjects are more difficult to predict and so the above issues will still haunt schools.

But that’s not for another two years and teachers are struggling today to know where a C grade is anymore. Plus the reforms still don’t resolve the inherent contradiction between being expected to target students and no longer being able to rely on data to accurately do so. Yesterday’s ruling was clear: Ofqual did not act unreasonably. But schools now need a clear steer on what to do about data monitoring, predictions and targeting if they too are to act reasonably.  Greater leadership on these matters will stop further fiascoes occurring in the future and, in all honesty, might even have stopped them happening in the first place.