Education

Coronavirus: changes to how A-Levels are awarded

On 7 August we published an article explaining how qualifications such as A/AS-Levels and GCSEs were going to be graded in the summer of 2020, and the Welsh Government’s reasons for taking that approach. On 12 August the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams MS announced that the way A-Levels would be graded was going to be changed. This followed changes already made in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England after strong criticism of the ‘standardisation’ model used to calculate grades, and its impact on individual learners, and those learners in Scotland from more deprived areas.

Estimated reading time: 5 Minutes

14 August 2020

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

***THIS ARTICLE REFLECTED THE SITUATION AS AT 13 AUGUST 2020. ON 15 AUGUST, THE MINISTER ANNOUNCED NEW GROUNDS FOR APPEAL. OUR NEW ARTICLE PROVIDES INFORMATION ABOUT THIS CHANGE AND SHOULD BE READ IN CONJUNCTION WITH THIS PIECE***

On 7 August we published an article explaining how qualifications such as A/AS-Levels and GCSEs were going to be graded in the summer of 2020, and the Welsh Government’s reasons for taking that approach.

On 12 August the Minister for Education, Kirsty Williams MS announced that the way A-Levels would be graded was going to be changed. This followed changes already made in Scotland, Northern Ireland, and England after strong criticism of the ‘standardisation’ model used to calculate grades, and its impact on individual learners, and those learners in Scotland from more deprived areas.

The Minister explained that instead of A-Level learners being awarded the grade calculated by WJEC’s ‘standardisation’ models, as was the plan, they would instead be automatically awarded the same grade as they achieved in their AS-Level, if their AS-Level result was higher than their WJEC calculated A-Level grade. This means affected learners would automatically see their grades increase.

The change in policy has still come in for considerable criticism, with Plaid Cymru calling on the First Minister to award learners their teacher assessment grades where they are higher than their calculated result, and for an urgent meeting of the Senedd’s Children, Young People and Education Committee.

Both Qualifications Wales and the WJEC issued statements in response to this new Ministerial Direction.

At the time of writing no changes have been announced for any other types of qualifications including GCSEs or AS-Levels. The calculation of grades for AS and GCSEs takes account of the historic performance of the school or college, whereas the calculation of A level grades only uses the AS results of the actual A level learners getting their grades. The different models for calculating grades are explained in these videos.

When the Minister made her announcement on 12 August, A-Level results had already been issued to schools that morning. This means affected learners must now wait for WJEC to re-issue their results to reflect any higher AS-Level grade.

It also means that at the time of writing there is not yet a national picture of A-Level results, with the overview published by Qualifications Wales not yet reflecting the change in policy and the resulting new grades.

Just under half of teacher predicted A-Level grades were changed

In its overview Qualifications Wales explains that the issuing of calculated grades in summer 2020 would have led to:

  • 2020 results being broadly similar to recent years (which was the intention behind the standardisation process), and
  • the attainment gap being consistent with the attainment gap seen over the previous five years.

Qualifications Wales goes on to explain that

The Centre Assessment Grades (CAGs) submitted by schools and colleges were optimistic and, without standardisation, would have produced atypically high outcomes.

Qualifications Wales sets out data that shows just under half (46 per cent) of A-Level predicted CAGs were changed after the standardisation calculation, with 42 per cent lower than the CAG and 4 per cent higher.

It also found that 48 per cent of learners eligible for free school meals received an A-Level calculated grade lower than their CAG, compared to 45 per cent for those not eligible. Qualifications Wales has not published learner characteristic data relating to deprivation as the Scottish SQA has done.

The algorithm used to calculate grades does not use personal learner characteristics (such as sex, ethnicity etc) to calculate final grades other than learner age, which is only used to identify learners resitting qualifications.

Looking again at grounds for appeal

***THE INFORMATION BELOW REFLECTED THE APPEALS PROCESS AS AT 13 AUGUST 2020. ON 15 AUGUST, THE MINISTER ANNOUNCED NEW GROUNDS FOR APPEAL. OUR NEW ARTICLE PROVIDES INFORMATION ABOUT THIS CHANGE***

The Minister also explained that:

I will be asking Qualifications Wales to move forward quickly on relevant adjustments to a Welsh appeals process as soon as these plans are clearer, in order to ensure Welsh students are not disadvantaged.

The Minister committed that any appeals would be free for learners. The original (and at the time of writing still current) appeals process is an exceptional process just for this year. It is set out in our previous blog and is also explained in this flowchart. There is more detailed technical guidance on appealing here, produced on behalf of WJEC.

Learners must appeal through their school or college and are not able to challenge the CAG. Qualifications Wales chose to specifically exclude being able to appeal the CAG as part of its consultation, run earlier in the summer – it sets out its reasons for doing so here. Instead grounds for appeal are currently limited to:  

… procedural grounds, on the basis that the wrong data was used to calculate results for Learners, or where there was an administrative error in the issuing of results by WJEC.

However, in response to the Ministers announcement Qualifications Wales has explained that it is reconsidering the grounds for appeal, and expects to provide more information next week.

Colleges Wales have also called for clarity on what the appeals process should be for those A-Level students whose grades are lower than their predicted CAG, but higher than their AS-Level meaning the Minister’s change in policy would not result in a higher grade being automatically issued by WJEC.

Appeals and learners who fall outside previous patterns of results

The standardisation model used to calculate A-Levels uses the cohort’s actual prior performance in its AS-Levels in a subject. However, the model used to calculate AS-Level uses a school’s average prior performance in a subject (adjusted for the cohort’s prior attainment at GCSE level to account for learners that have a higher or lower ability than the school has had in the previous years).

However, where a school or college believes a learner has prior attainment that would suggest performance exceptionally different to the school or college’s typical performance, then there are currently grounds for appeal based on the ‘wrong data’ having been used in calculating grades (for example, where a school or college has a learner whose prior attainment would suggest they would achieve an A* in a subject and this is exceptionally different to the school or college’s usual performance in that subject).

Technical guidance issued to the WJEC by Qualifications Wales on considering appeals is available here. The guidance explains that

There are some exceptional circumstances in which using a default data set to calculate results might be shown through an appeal to amount to using the wrong data because of some exceptional factor which undermines the assumption that the default data set is the most appropriate basis to calculate results for the Centre’s Learners.

The guidance goes on to set out how schools and colleges can establish that its “previous cohorts of learners are not sufficiently representative of the 2020 cohort to reliably inform the calculation of results”.

What next?

We will publish further updates as the situation progresses and more information is released by WJEC and Qualifications Wales.


Article by Phil Boshier, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.

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