Teachers in England had nearly 40% of their A-level assessments downgraded by the exam regulator’s algorithm, according to official figures published on Thursday morning as sixth-formers around the UK received their results.
A-level entries awarded A or A* increased to an all-time high in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with 27.9% securing the top grades this year.
But figures released by Ofqual showed that 39.1% of the 700,000 teacher assessments submitted in England were lowered by one or more grade during its standardisation process, compared with just 2.2% of assessments that were upgraded.
The proportion of A-level students in England receiving A* to C grades increased by 2.4 percentage points despite one-third of grades being downgraded this year
Guardian graphic | Source: Joint Council for Qualifications. Base: English A-level students
The total downgraded included 3.5% lowered by two grades or more, while just a sliver – 0.06% – were raised by two or more grades.
The Guardian’s analysis published last week forecast that 39% of teacher-assessed grades had been lowered by Ofqual’s algorithm.
The combined results issued by the exam boards for England found that a record proportion of school-leavers will have received the top A* grade this year, while there was also a big increase in the proportion awarded As by algorithm.
But the increase in higher grades was not enough to stem mounting dismay among headteachers, with a survey of sixth form college heads in England reporting that several said this year’s results were the worst in their college’s history.
Almost 40% of A-level grades in England downgraded from those issued by their teachers
Same grade as that awarded by teacher
One grade lower
Two grades lower
One grade higher
Guardian graphic | Source: The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation
In England the proportion of 18-year-olds receiving grades C or above rose by more than two percentage points to 78.5% of entries, but the increase was slightly higher among those getting A* and As, which improved by 2.3 percentage points to nearly 28% of entries.
The proportion of girls in England awarded A or above rose from 25% to 28%, overtaking that of boys, who received As or above for 27% of their entries. But boys maintained their lead in the top A* grade alone, with the statistical model awarding A*s for 9.3% of their entries, while girls received 8.7%, with both proportions up by more than 10%.
Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “While there has been an overall increase in top grades, we are very concerned that this disguises a great deal of volatility among the results at school and student level.
“We have received heartbreaking feedback from school leaders about grades being pulled down in a way that they feel to be utterly unfair and unfathomable. They are extremely concerned about the detrimental impact on their students.”
Ofqual described the 2020 exam series as “exceptional” because of the school closures and exam cancellations that followed the coronavirus outbreak in March, forcing it to develop a statistical model to calculate and moderate teacher assessments submitted by schools, in place of formal exams.
Gavin Williamson, the education secretary for England, revealed that he has asked exam boards to encourage schools to appeal against their results if they feared disadvantaged candidates were being affected by this year’s system.
“There is sometimes a danger where you have an exceptionally high-performing child in a low-performing school to be in a situation where they don’t get the grades that they want to,” Williamson said in an interview with LBC.
“What we’ve asked the exam boards is, where they think there may be outliers, is actually to be contacting the schools to talk with them to make sure that appeals are put forward.”
Ofqual’s own figures showed that pupils at independent schools received double the improvement in A* and A grades compared with those attending state comprehensives, while sixth form colleges received only a tiny improvement.
A survey of principals conducted by the Sixth Form Colleges Association found “huge variations” between the exam grades predicted by teachers – known as centre-assessed grades – and the final grades students received from Ofqual.
“Despite following the guidelines for developing centre assessed grades, colleges reported that the government’s standardisation process had resulted in huge numbers of students receiving lower grades than expected, with some reporting that two thirds of their results had been downgraded,” the association said.
Some college heads reported that their results “were the worst since records began”. That was despite earlier assurances by Ofqual that its standardisation process would “ensure national results are broadly similar to previous years”.
The head of one sixth form college in Barnet, north London, said he was disappointed that half of the college’s submitted grades had been revised down, despite the college internally moderating its assessments to fit its results of recent years.
Bill Watkin, the chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “Our survey suggests that the government’s model for calculating this year’s A-level grades is flawed and unreliable. A fundamental objective of the process was to ensure year-on-year comparability in exam results – the very clear evidence from our members is that the standardisation model has utterly failed to achieve this.”
Ofqual defended its approach, saying: “Without standardisation there was the potential for students to be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged, depending on the school or college they attended and the approach they took.”
The regulator also said it had looked at “potential advantage or disadvantage across different demographic and socioeconomic groups” of its methods. “The analyses show no evidence that this year’s process of awarding grades has introduced bias,” it said.