The Truth Behind GCSE Grades 2020

Coronavirus has had a lot of disastrous impacts globally. One of the lesser publicised catastrophes that have occurred as a result of lockdown, is the current situation with GCSE and A-Level grades. In the Isle of Man, among other places in the world, in May/June Year 11 (students age 15-16) sit GCSE examinations, ordinarily. These grades determine whether or not you can attend to sixth form (school for those age 16-18, non-compulsory). Most sixth forms require at least 5 GCSEs at a grade ‘C’ (Pass) or higher. Ultimately, to go to university, you must have attended sixth form, as all UK universities have an A-Level (exams at the end of sixth form) requirement. Furthermore, in order to get any job, you are required to have a GCSE Maths and a GCSE English Language (hereafter ‘core subjects’). 

However, the 2020 students were not allowed to sit these examinations. 

In much of the world, exams were cancelled due to social-distancing. This was because it was assumed that students couldn’t keep six feet apart in an exam hall (though, I was under the impression that if you were closer to a fellow exam candidate than six feet, you would be accused of cheating anyway). In the Isle of Man, along with other places, the decision was made by the exam board in question that in order to give students some sort of result, an alternative system for assessment would be practised for this year only: firstly, the subject teacher would be required to rank the class from best to worst (#1 – best) at the given subject; secondly, the teacher would then give the student an approximate grade of what they (the teacher) thinks the student would have been most likely to attain if she/he had sat the exam; lastly, that data would then be taken by the exam board and the data of the average grades the given school in the given subject attains eg if a school normally gets three A*s in German, this year the top three students (as ranked by the teacher) would receive A*. As much as I appreciate the need for some form of an assessment system for my cohort, I feel you will agree that the system used had definite flaws. 

Indeed, there are so many things that could have impacted on a student’s teacher ranking: whether they liked the student; the student’s behaviour; and, most disturbingly, the student’s socio-economic status, their gender and their race. When this system was announced, we were assured that we – the students – would be totally immune to this possible bias as there would be vast checks in place. In reality, a vast number of students have been down marked. To make matters worse, as a student, I cannot personally appeal my grade – I must get the school to do it for me. If a teacher has down marked a student based on the aforementioned factors (that have absolutely nothing to do with one’s ability) then would that teacher be likely to assist the student in filing an appeal?

 (This is an illustration I have personally made. If you wish to use it, feel free to do so but please credit me.)

But possible discrimination is not the only issue here. At my school, we operated (until the 2020 students) an ‘early entry’ policy in one of the core subjects. What this entails is that if a student in November of Year 11 is deemed ready to take the exam, they will be free to do so. The rest of the cohort who were not deemed ready for ‘early entry’ then sit the exam in May/June, for this reason, naturally, the exam grades of the students in May/June would be lower than those of the November exam. Unfortunately, ‘early entry’ was not an option for the 2020 students, for reasons never explained. The issue then lies with how that data was used to guess the results of my cohort: instead of taking the whole cohort of the previous years and averaging that (the results of all students – those who sat the exam in November and May/June) the exam board in question only averaged the results of the May/June exams – the weaker set. This means that the data mapped onto my cohort was highly, highly flawed. Under the old ‘early entry’ policy, I would have been eligible to sit the exam in November, as I was predicted an A*. I don’t know what grade the teacher then entered me in this core subject at or what rank I was assigned – if I wish to find out, the school have 40 days (5 weeks and 5 days) to tell me, after I file a data access request. As a result of this system, my A* prediction has turned into a B grade. 

Exams having been cancelled for social distancing concerns, even though, most students are under the impression that exams have a policy of “If you can read your friend’s exam paper, you’re too close to them.”, we have now been given what is effectively randomised grades: only one out of seven of my grades is close to my predicted grade and mock results – if you gave a spreadsheet the grades A*-U and programmed it to give these grades randomly to students – one would expect that 1/7 grades would be roughly correct. Though I am by no means accusing the school of doing this, I argue they may as well have done. If they had done this, students’ mental health and self-esteem would then not have been impacted by these grades as they would have known that these grades hold absolutely no true assessment of them or their skills. For a society that claims to place so much credence in the importance of mental health for young people, I feel this ‘assessment’ system ( which I argue assesses more the background and behaviour of the students than their actual ability) has been beyond appalling. Have my 12 years of state-mandated education just been rounded off by random grades? It would seem so. Will I still be able to go to sixth form? Yes. For many, the answer to the latter question is ‘no’. This is shocking, disturbing and makes me question if The Whig Party is still in government.

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