How elated were you when lockdowns finally lifted and word started going around that the UK beat the pandemic?

How long did that elation last when you realised that life will now resume, meaning that you will once again pick up your school obligations? And how did you feel upon hearing that exams are scrapped for the year?

If you anticipated sitting A-Levels or Advanced Highers this year, you may have felt relief at knowing you won't have to report to a testing centre for your many exams. That flood of joy might then have been quickly washed away by the tide of worry over how your grades will be tallied and reported to all the proper authorities, UCAS included.

After all, how can you choose your university degree programme if you have no grades to input into UCAS? And what about BTEC students - how will their grades be measured?

These are uncertain times we're living in, that's for sure. Uncertain not just because of this infernal virus that refuses to be quelled but because of the many adjustments we have had to make to our lives and routines, not the least of which is progressing through our academic journey. 

Believe your Superprof, dear students. You're not the only ones who've had to suddenly find a new way forward after decades of doing things the same way. Educators and administrators are just as flummoxed as you are.

So let's talk about how these seat-of-the-pants decisions came to be made, how far the new processes deviate from the standard models that have been in use for years and what your options are should you need an adjustment to your grades.

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The Big Debate

Over the past century, our country and people have had to deal with their share of adversity. From world wars to austerity, through killer fogs and deadly spoil tips, it would be fair to say that we're no strangers to adversity and hardship.

Travelling further back through our country's history is like retracing a path through disaster and difficulty. From plagues to poxes and wars to ruin, the detritus of our past is well-recorded.

The trouble with all of those and other dramatic events in our history is that we tend to see them as isolated snapshots with little connection to other ongoing events. Thus, the magnitude of them is reduced; indeed they're not seen as a part of our running narrative.

In a sense, that attitude dictated our mentality about the pandemic.

COVID has upended our lives
COVID has proven to be far more than a temporary inconvenience. Photo credit: Pascal Rey Photographies on Visualhunt

We thought we only needed to hunker down and wait for it to pass. With no one available to infect, the virus would soon die out and we could go on again, as we always have. In all, the pandemic would be a mere blip in our timeline; no need to re-evaluate or change anything.

COVID had a different idea in mind - pardon for according this thing any power of thought.

Last year's exam season, roundly condemned as an unmitigated disaster, should have been a prologue to what we would face this year. Unfortunately, back then, during our first lockdown, nobody had any idea how tenacious this thing would be or how long the pandemic would last.

Thus, between our penchant for perceiving events in a vacuum and having never encountered anything quite so thoroughly able to upset the normal order of things, it wasn't until late last year that the authorities finally conceded that exams couldn't take place as per usual.

There were no contingency plans in place. No country and no authority had any suggestions for how to get around an integral cog in the educational chain while still permitting the academic machine to continue functioning as it is supposed to.

A furious debated ensued over what was happening - and what would happen with this year's exams.

What's in an Algorithm?

For the last 2o years or so, UK's student testing process has been a streamlined affair.

In 2008, Ofqual assumed regulatory duties previously held by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, and it wasn't too long after that when they formulated their first algorithm to calculate exam grades.

As you may know, an algorithm is a series of computer instructions for a specific task. Those instructions are finite - they don't demand that the computer continue working on results beyond a specified point, and they are unambiguous, meaning that they cannot be influenced by emotion or mitigating factors.

Algorithms create a stark contrast to teachers' assessments.

A teacher may be more sensitive in their assessment if they know a particular student is going through a spot of trouble. S/he can characterise students' academic performance by the effort each student puts in towards achievement and take into consideration students' anxiety levels when taking exams.

All of these factors and more may impact students' grades but, for algorithms, none of them matter. They only measure performance.

Fractal patterns result from algorithms
When you see a fractal pattern, you may suspect an algorithm at work. Photo credit: $ALEH on Visualhunt

In part, we have technology to thank for algorithms' wide proliferation. Algorithms have been around for millennia - the Babylonians were the first algorithm authors but it wasn't until the Information Age that they became ubiquitous.

We also have to blame suspicion for the wholehearted and enthusiastic embrace of machine calculation for student grades.

Teachers are human; naturally, they have biases. However, in the performance of their duties, they are not supposed to show bias. That neither stopped teachers from exercising bias nor parents from accusing teachers of bias, whether any was present or not.

Thus it was accepted that, by taking the human factor out of student assessment, only performance would be reflected.

Obviously, that's illogical, considering the number of appeals students have made because of their results every year.

Making Sense of the Chaos

Judging by the protests following last year's exam grades - a perfect demonstration of algorithms' limitations, educators, administrators and politicians knew something different had to happen this year.

It wasn't just last year's nationwide dissatisfaction with results that drove that consensus; the infernal pandemic was not letting up! 

By the time everyone arrived at the inevitable conclusion that, while assessments must take place (because they are integral to the academic process), something different would have to happen to make them possible.

That was in October of last year. By then, it was far too late for any computer process rethink but, because that was the system relied on for so long, it was hard to imagine an alternate, yet equally efficient solution.

Do you remember that a large part of the anger over last year's results was driven by the algorithms grading students far lower than teacher assessment did? That's why one of the loudest cries during the protests was: "We trust our teachers!"

Indeed, in a survey conducted by Parentkind last October, the greatest majority of parents averred that they too believed that teachers were the best-qualified to assess students.

And so, after some furious debate, everyone who had anything to do with deciding educational policy agreed that teachers assessing their pupils is the least bad option, given the situation.

Your turn to chime in: what do you think about exams being cancelled for this year?

Teachers always took on pupil assessment
It's always been the teachers' responsibility to assess their pupils. Photo credit: Editor B on Visualhunt

How Your Grades Will Be Tallied

In essence, going back to teacher assessments is a bit like returning to the Stone Age after all of the wonderful tools we've used for so long.

Still, teachers assessing their students' academic performance shouldn't be such a huge deal; that's the way school progress was measured for centuries. However, we have to remark on how momentous a task it will be for teachers to resume that task, especially since teaching models haven't regressed.

For the most part, teachers are still required to teach what will be on the test, only now, they will also have to grade those tests, too. How will they do it?

The factors teachers will consider include:

  • coursework
  • independent work related to the course
  • essays
  • in-class tests
  • mock exams

Exam boards, normally the driving entities of this endeavour, will not be idle. They will provide teachers with supplemental materials such as assessment questions and recommended marking schemes. They will also work with schools to oversee the grading process.

Perhaps the best part of this alternative testing plan is that teachers are firmly (finally!) in control of the testing process.

Students will still have time limits as they would during regular exam sessions. However, where the exam board might allow an hour and a half for an essay paper or 30 minutes for a multiple-choice science test, it is now up to the teachers to set those limits for each of their classes.

Furthermore, there's no need to worry about missing an exam because you're in quarantine after potential exposure to a COVID-infected person. Your teacher gets to decide where and how the exams are administered so, if you are confined, you can take your exams at home.

And the best news of all? There will be no algorithms to downgrade any student's efforts because it thinks your teacher's grades are too generous, or because you're in a larger-than-standard class, or because your school traditionally performed poorly so your high grades must be a mistake.

Isn't that great?  

Now, read on to discover if/how university admissions will be affected by this year's assessments.

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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.