Why the ranking might be more important than the grading in GCSEs and A-levels

Tom Middlehurst, Head of Policy and Public Affairs at SSAT, explains why more time and effort should be given to cohort rankings than the grade itself, and offers suggestions on how schools can navigate this process

Throughout May, school leaders, heads of department and teachers will be preparing to submit their teacher assessments for GCSE, AS and A-level candidates due to take exams this summer. While there are still uncertainties over the process, including the final methodology for the national standardisation exercise, we do know that all centres will need to submit a prediction for what each of their students would have achieved had they sat the exams as normal. When the new-style exams themselves are still in their infancy, this is not a task that will come easily to many.

All teachers are used to providing ‘working at’ grades, target grades and feedback as part of formative assessment. Ofqual point out that a predicted final grade is not the same as any of these. ‘Working at’ does not take into account the extra support and revision students may have done in the coming months. Target grades should always include an aspirational stretch for students. Formative assessment is focused on moving a student’s learning forward – not providing a summative grading. Making a prediction on what a student was most likely to achieve in the summer requires professional judgement, integrity and transparency between colleagues.

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But perhaps more importantly, exam centres will need to rank every student within a predicted grade, for each subject – from the most secure to the least secure. This, in turn, will create a rank of the entire cohort entered for that subject. This exercise is likely to be far more complex, and unknown, than the grade prediction itself. How do you differentiate between two seemingly identical grade 5 students? How can large departments like English and maths rank students, many of whom may be unknown to a majority of the department’s teachers? Even schools that have engaged in comparative marking between individual pieces of work, will have rarely had the experience of ranking each child individually.

Yet, arguably, it’s the ranking – not the grade – that is more important for schools to get right. One of the things that has been overlooked in discussion about teacher assessment is that, although the national standardisation may move teachers’ grade predictions up or down, the school’s internal ranking will not be changed; unless the ranking shows obvious bias to a particular group of students (something Ofqual are still consulting on). As such, teachers and curriculum leaders can make best judgements about what a student would have got this summer, but the final decision is ultimately out of schools’ hands; the ranking, however, is entirely within their control.

This is not to say that the grade prediction is not important. It is. But what should a head of department do if she is given 40 grade 5 predictions from 8 different teachers? This is why the ranking exercise must go alongside teacher assessments, and not be left as an afterthought at the end of May.

How can schools navigate this process in the coming month, particularly when many staff will continue to be working remotely?

  • At a classroom teacher level, teachers should of course be using as much evidence as possible to offer a professional, honest judgement about what each of their students were likely to achieve this summer. Ofqual are not requiring schools to send evidence initially, but in the case of appeals, evidence may be asked for. Teachers should therefore be able to justify the grades they submit. Most schools will use some sort of moderation exercise during this process, especially to support less experienced staff.
  • At the same time, heads of department may want to draw up an initial ranking of all candidates in their subject. How this is done will depend on each school’s internal data collection: it may be the raw scores of the last moderated test, pre-public mock exams or marks collected over the course of study.
  • Some weeks before the deadline for submission, heads of department will need to share their initial list with all staff. Chis Baker, a physics teacher and football scout, suggests that the head of department go through every name on the list. No skipping. No jumping ahead. If anyone thinks a student should move up or down, they can have their say.
  • Once both exercises are complete, and classroom teachers have submitted their assessments, heads of department should look at how the submitted grades sit alongside the draft ranking. Does it seem to make sense? Where individual students are out of place in the rank, a discussion needs to be had as to whether the assessment or the ranking is at fault.
  • Baker suggests the same process is repeated to agree the final list, after the adjustments have been made for grade assessments. The head of department reads out every name, and the submitted grade – without exception. Departments should pay particular attention to the candidates on the edge of grades – as these are the students most vulnerable to having their grades moved up or down during national standardisation.
  • For submitting to awarding organisations, the ranking will need to be rewritten so that candidates within each grade are ranked.
  • We know that one of the factors being taken into consideration when standardisation is done, is a school’s most recent results. This is controversial, as could be seen to disadvantage students at schools that have made rapid improvement in the last 12 months. However, with this in mind, as a final sense-check, heads of department and senior leaders may want to compare their final teacher-assessment submissions with the spread of grades in recent years. Does the story you’re telling ring true? Of course, each cohort is different – especially for smaller option subjects – and so schools must not feel pressured into inflating or deflating grades purely based on previous performance measures – but a quick glance may be useful and help manage expectations. Likewise, it may be useful to look at where students with protected characteristics, including disadvantage, sit in the rank – as this is something Ofqual have expressed concern about.

This process will be new for many teachers, particularly in a system that has become so directed by external assessment. It will require teachers and leaders to have honest, open and professional dialogue, using a range of pedagogical disciplines, and continuing to show the integrity and dedication that has characterised the profession throughout this crisis.

Redesigning Schooling 8: Principled assessment design, Wiliam D (SSAT, 2014)
Grade Allocation Advice, Baker, C (2020)

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