But if this ever-changing world in which we're living / Makes you give up and cry... Paul McCartney, Live and Let Die

If ever there's been a year in recent memory that changed the world we live in and made us cry, it was 2020. If that year made you feel like giving up, talk to someone. Don't ever give up! 

The year of COVID destabilised economies, highlighted social inequities and sent established institutions into a tailspin of uncertainty and confusion. Every body, from the political to the scientific were caught on the back foot as this infernal virus ravaged its way around the world.

Academic bodies were not left unfazed. Indeed, their role may be thought of as more critical to students because what happens in Parliament has a trickle-down effect on society but what Ofqual decides has a direct and immediate impact on us. And, as we all know, today's students are the stewards of the future so those effects can be particularly destabilising.

We only need to point to last year's exams disaster, which perfectly underscores that statement. What has changed since then?

Practically everything, from the way exams will be administered to how grades will be tallied.

How students' grades will be calculated this year is the subject of a whole different article. Now, your Superprof wants to help you understand what you can do if you believe your marks don't reflect your work or abilities.

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How Things Were Done in the Old Days

If we picture public education as a clock reflecting its entire history, from its inception in the 1830s onward, standardized testing would appear at roughly five minutes till midnight, with midnight reflecting current time.

Standardized testing has been around for about as long as public education has but it wasn't always as regimented and regulated, nor did it have the same purpose as it does today.

Standardized tests were meant to categorize students
Not so long ago, standardized testing was a discriminatory process. Photo credit: fs999 on Visualhunt.com

What's the purpose behind standardized examinations?

Initially - way back when public education first became a thing, oral testing was meant to sort 'qualified' students from those thought to be too stupid to learn. That's a direct quote from historical texts, not our words.

When the American military embraced mass testing of their new recruits in the early years of the 20th Century, those standard exams had less to do with maths and English; they were more like IQ tests designed to tease out a potential soldier's aptitude and appetite for war.

Naturally, those who scored poorly were rejected for service until the need for new bodies became urgent - at which point, everyone who was basically healthy and at least borderline competent was allowed in.

From just these two uses of standardized testing, we see that such exams were meant to separate the wheat from the chaff. The inevitable extension of this separation process was to allocate more resources to those deemed the most capable of reaching success and not wasting any on those thought to be too dim to advance.

Around the 1980s, attitudes started changing. There were massive social movements decrying institutional inequality. The world of academics was smack in the middle of things - not on the side of justice and equality, either.

That new social consciousness drove the change from resources being diverted towards those thought to be the most deserving to being more equitably distributed.

Today, the main purpose of standardized testing is to determine if resources are evenly allocated. To oversee the effort, independent governing bodies were established to ensure test impartiality and political agents disbursed funding based on schools' performance on exams rather than on postal codes.

As the pendulum swung further to the side of fairness, students' voices mattered more and more. Thus, when a student complained of unfair grades, s/he was taken seriously. Most often, the disputed grades were raised.

Of course, proving fairness by going to extremes in grade adjustment had unintended consequences, much like everything happening with GCSEs and A-Levels right now. We just don't know the full extent of those adjustments just yet; only time will tell if they were beneficial or even warranted.

How Many Students Appeal Results?

So clichéd is "The teacher has it out for me!" that it has become a trope. It sometimes mutates into other phrases such as 'my teacher hates me' or, more expansively, 'my teacher hates everybody'. That one is usually followed by 'S/he shouldn't be a teacher if s/he hates kids so much!'.

When it comes to grading your work, whether your teacher likes you or not is immaterial. Today, teachers must follow guidelines when assessing their students' work; they grade on incorrect answers rather than any personal traits that might show through in your work.

Anybody can make a mistake, even writers and especially teachers
Everybody makes mistakes, even writers, publishers and, of course, teachers. Photo credit: Chris Radcliff on VisualHunt.com

As teachers are human, they too are bound to make mistakes. They might mark a correct answer as wrong and, occasionally, let an incorrect answer slip by unchecked. That's why it's always a good idea to go over your answer sheets as soon as you get your papers back, so you can dispute your grade before the lesson move on.

Challenging exam boards' marks is a bit more daunting; somewhat like punching an unseen enemy.

Students appealing exam results had to first report the offending marks to their teacher. The school would then file a complaint with the exam board in question, who would schedule a review. The entire process cost the school money; funds which were returned if, indeed, the student was correct in asserting their grades were off.

Typically, around 500.000 students requested a review of their results each exam season.

That number jumped dramatically last year, as the Ofqual algorithm downgraded students who had performed well on their assessments.

What Happened Last Year

COVID struck just as exam season was gearing up. Its sheer virulence forced educational entities - the exam boards, qualifications boards and all of the UK's departments for education to scramble for solutions that would allow student assessment to go on in some form.

In the end, everyone settled on teacher assessments. That process was complemented by Ofqual, who designed an algorithm to moderate results against possible grade inflation. In Scotland, their Qualifications Authority took on the task.

Apparently, they suspected the reverse of 'My teacher hates me!'; their intent signals that teachers might instead boost students' grades. Not necessarily for students' benefits; your exams also deliver a report card on your school and teachers. Any grade hike would also raise the school's profile.

Hindsight reveals that this was a stunning display of double-work. The teachers graded, and then the qualifications authorities standardized the grades across entire regions, keeping them in line with historical data rather than accepting teachers' marks.

Estimates show that a quarter of Scottish students had their grades lowered while, in England, that number was closer to 36%. Outrage ensued.

While the grading fiasco is not the reason why exams were scrapped for the 2021 season, it certainly played a role in determining how GCSE, A-Level and Higher candidates will be assessed this year.

Prioritise your appeal so you can enter university on time
If your university admission is at risk over your grades, it would be best to appeal them. Photo credit: Rusty Russ on Visualhunt.com

How to Appeal Your 2021 Exam Results

Everything will be alright in the end and if it's not alright, it's not the end. The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Qualifications boards learned quickly from their mistakes. This year, rather than arbitrarily altering teacher assessed grades (TAGs) to suit an algorithm, TAGs stand as the valid marks. Furthermore, any dispute about your marks starts with those grades.

As for qualifications bodies' role in certifying results? Theirs won't exactly be a rubber-stamp operation - there will be some scrutiny involved, but they won't alter any marks without a legitimate reason for doing so.

This year, if you dispute any of your grades, you will have to provide reasons for your appeal - that part has perhaps not changed, depending on your school. You should first appeal to your school and, if they are unable to resolve the matter, they will call on Ofqual to render a decision.

You should note that your grounds for appeal will not necessarily be a factor in deciding whether your grade should be changed. Also note that, by inviting closer scrutiny, verifiers may decide that, indeed, your work has been badly scored, but not in the way you'd hoped. Your grade may go down rather than up... but it's more likely to stay the same.

As far as Ofqual is concerned, a grade will be considered incorrectly assigned only if the original mark represents an 'unreasonable application of academic judgment'. In other words, if your work merits either a B or a C, grading it as a C would be considered reasonable. Therefore, the grade will not be changed and your appeal justifications will carry no weight.

You do have one further step you can take in appealing your grades: the oversight committee. Here again, you must submit a written justification for your request, but it has to contain all previous steps you've taken and their results.

If your place at university depends on these exam grades, it may be worth the fight so be sure to let your school adviser know, so that the review board can prioritise your request.

Now, find out if and how this whacky round of exams will affect your university admission...

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.