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What can we expect from this year’s exam results? - Eddie Playfair

04 August 2022

Eddie Playfair – Senior Policy Manager, AoC

For many students, results day will be about the joy of getting the grades they deserve and hoped for, or at least those they need for progression. Now that the summer 2022 exams are over, what can we expect from the results in August and what do we know about how exams will be graded?

This year saw the return to exams after two years of centre assessment which resulted in a big increase in the proportion of higher grades. This year’s assessment arrangements and grading systems were designed to produce a transitional year based on a ‘midpoint’ somewhere between 2019 and 2021, with a view to returning to something more like 2019 by next year.

Easier exams?

Exams were not made easier this year. The questions in the papers were designed and put together in the usual way, to test students’ knowledge, skills and understanding against the same standards in the subject specifications. Marking has taken place as normal, according to the agreed mark schemes.

In order to ease the way back to the pre-pandemic system, candidates did benefit from various mitigations this year. These included more choice of topics or content, formulae or equation sheets in some subjects and advance information on the focus of exams in many subjects.

From marks to grades: setting grade boundaries

Marks become grades through the use of grade boundaries, which define which mark ranges translate to which grade. These grade boundaries are not set until the exams have been sat and marked. Senior examiners review the quality of student work over a range of marks and set grade boundaries based on all the available evidence. Once they’ve been agreed, the same grade boundaries apply equally to everyone taking the qualification.

Grade boundaries can change from year to year, reflecting differences in the demand of question papers. This year, because of the mid-point aim, the grade boundaries will generally reflect a slight lowering of the bar, and some scores will produce a higher grade than they would have in 2019, helping some students who might otherwise have just missed out on the higher grade.

Data from 2019 and 2021 will be used to support the alignment between exam boards, so that it is no easier to get a particular grade in a particular subject with one board than another. The boards will also aim to iron out any differences caused by the variation in advance information provided for different specifications.

Are grades based on criteria, norms or neither?

Students will be judged purely on the marks they get in their exams and assessments. In an exam, they can achieve these marks across several different questions. For A Levels and GCSEs, the system is compensatory, which means that marks on one topic can make up for a lack of marks elsewhere. This means that these qualifications are not criterion-referenced; grades are not pegged to particular knowledge or skills in specific areas. For Applied General Qualifications there is criterion-referencing within some units, with a requirement to achieve a certain level across different units in order to achieve specific grades overall.

Qualifications are not norm-referenced either, meaning that there is no fixed quota for the proportion of students who can achieve a particular grade. While the mid-point aspiration might suggest that there is a predetermined proportion of students at each grade, that’s not the case, and examiners will look at student work to align performance between different years.

What is the mid-point between 2019 and 2021?

The approach to grading this year is aiming broadly for a ‘mid-point’ between 2019 and 2021 but we can’t expect results to end up precisely at the mathematical midpoint, either overall, for individual subjects or different grades.

That’s because the grade profile will reflect how students have actually performed. Consider, for example, a subject where the expected midpoint of candidates achieving at least a grade 4 is around 68%. Examiners might be considering setting the grade 4 boundary at 60 marks or 59 marks. Setting it at 60 marks might realistically mean 67% of candidates achieve grade 4 or above. But setting it one mark lower at 59 could shift outcomes at grade 4 and above to 70%, so it's not actually possible to hit the notional target of 68% and a single mark has made a big difference. This is because grade boundaries are set at whole numbers of marks and often many thousands of candidates will have the same mark, requiring them to be awarded the same grade.

The grade profiles for post-16 students retaking GCSE English and maths are always more unpredictable. GCSE grade boundaries are set based only on the performance of the Year 11 cohort for that year but then apply to all candidates equally. The post-16 retake students represent a large but untypical subset of candidates and can perform very differently because they don’t represent a full age cohort.

What about Vocational and Technical Qualification (VTQ) results?

During the pandemic, awarding bodies were allowed to adapt their VTQ assessments so that students could demonstrate their knowledge and skills in ways that were valid and reliable and would support progression to further learning or employment.

Awarding bodies had the scope to decide on those adaptations that were most appropriate, such as adjusting work experience or placement requirements. In some cases, awarding bodies allowed centres to decide how to deliver assessments, for example using online rather than paper-based tests and carrying out assessments remotely rather than face-to-face. Some also introduced remote assessment and remote invigilation. This year’s adaptations were generally less extensive than in the past two years.

We can expect this summer’s VTQ results to be different to last year’s, as they take a big step towards normality. Grades for vocational and technical qualifications will be based on outcomes from a range of assessments and many students will have carried forward some Teacher Assessed Grades for units that were assessed last summer or even in the previous year. These assessments from across a student’s course of study will contribute to their overall grade.

There are some VTQs which use a very similar approach to grading as GCSEs and A Levels, and awarding bodies have been asked to award overall grades that are right for this very specific year of assessment, taking account of the expectations set for GCSEs and A level grading where possible.

What we know and what we don’t know

This year, we have a pretty good idea what the overall grade profile will look like, even if we can’t say for sure what this will mean for individual students. While it is natural to want to compare results from one year to those of previous years, the most relevant comparison for 2022 would be with 2019, when exams and other formal assessments were last taken.

Whatever the results in August, let’s celebrate students’ achievements, and acknowledge their hard work as well as all the planning which goes in to making assessment as fair as possible.

For a wider analysis of the English exam system and how it might change in future, see the excellent AoC Think Further blog from Professor Mary Richardson: “Normal service is resumed? Assessment in FE contexts

There are also two useful Ofqual blogs explaining the grading process this year: Exam results 2022: 10 things to know about GCSE, AS and A level grades by Cath Jadhav and What’s behind this summer’s VTQ results by Frances Wilson.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.