National qualification results may look different again this summer

Faced with a second year of disruption for learners and schools and colleges, making sure that learners were not disadvantaged has been paramount. A flexible approach to awarding qualifications was the only way to allow learners to progress.

 Philip Blaker, Chief Executive of Qualifications Wales, explains:

The pandemic has had a disruptive impact on learners in Wales over the past 17 months. Schools and colleges, year groups, individual teachers and learners have all been affected differently. 

In November 2020, the Minister cancelled the summer 2021 exam series; therefore, significantly different assessment arrangements were needed. 

In January of this year, when schools and colleges were closed for face-to-face teaching again, the only viable approach to awarding many qualifications was for schools and colleges to determine the grades for their learners using their professional judgement, underpinned by assessment evidence – Centre Determined Grades. Wales is not alone in this, as the other UK nations have taken similar approaches.

The priority was to find the fairest approach for learners under the circumstances - one that supported their well-being and progression in these extraordinary times. This meant that the alternative arrangements needed to have the maximum flexibility, so that schools and colleges could determine grades, considering their own local circumstances and the assessment evidence available to them.

So, what can we expect from this year’s national results across Wales?   

Given the extraordinary circumstances and the different assessment arrangements, it would be surprising if national results this summer looked the same as in pre-pandemic years. 

This is completely different to the usual approach of externally set and, in the main, externally marked assessments, where the marks achieved lead to the grade awarded. Because the approach was different, we expect results to be different.

What was the approach in previous years?

In pre-pandemic years, assessment was standardised, and grade boundaries were set through an awarding process undertaken by exam boards to determine the final grade. Standardisation of assessments means that the questions or tasks completed by the learners are the same, or very similar, as are the conditions under which they are sat.  

In the case of exams, all learners would sit the same assessment at the same time. This would typically be in a setting such as a school hall or gym in a managed and controlled way, according to exam board rules. There are also common mark schemes and training for examiners to increase the consistency of the marking.  

This year, there will be much more variation in assessment across schools and colleges, because teachers are taking a more flexible and holistic approach that reflects the extraordinary challenges learners have faced. 

Therefore, there could be differences in national results this year, because everything is different. Teaching, learning and assessments have changed, and the assessments will vary more at the local level.

So, will the results be lower or higher than in years before the pandemic? 

Some might expect results to be lower because of the disruption to education caused by COVID-19 and the loss of face-to-face teaching time that learners have experienced. 

However, we think it is more likely that results will be higher than in normal years, and potentially substantially so, given the different approach. For example, we have been told that many centres made use of past papers with known mark schemes, which learners were able to prepare for, and many learners did very well in these assessments. Accounting for this in professional and academic judgement may have been challenging, and may have been done in varied ways.

Higher results may also be a result of how schools and colleges have managed the difficult task of making holistic grading decisions, and their desire to be fair to learners. This could lead to higher results than in pre-pandemic years (although for many, the grades will be similar to those they would have achieved if the exams had taken place). This is also likely to have been a factor in the higher results last year after the centre assessment grades were awarded.

If there are higher qualification results this summer, careful interpretation is needed to avoid overly simplistic conclusions being drawn. For example, Welsh Government has recently announced a renew and reform plan, in which they will invest funding into schools and colleges to help with the impacts of the pandemic. Higher results could be interpreted by some as providing evidence that this investment is unnecessary. In reality, higher grades are much more likely to be the result of all the changes that have been made in what has been a very different year.

Looking ahead to 2022, what will happen in the next academic year?

As the regulator of qualifications, we are of course thinking about what this all means for the qualifications system in 2022 - and further ahead to the reform of qualifications for the Curriculum for Wales. 

Whilst we are planning for these qualifications to be assessed in the way they were designed to be assessed, with suitable adaptations to exams and/or non-examination assessments, we know the pandemic is not over. Blended learning approaches have become further embedded in the approach to dealing with the impact of the pandemic, but if disruption to face-to-face teaching and learning happens on a big enough scale, then contingency arrangements may need to be considered.  We will confirm this early in the autumn term, once there has been chance to evaluate how different approaches have performed across the UK.