Exam results 2023: the lion the dinosaur and the guinea pig

The hotly anticipated examination results emerged yesterday in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland amidst a flurry of media reports. Predictions had been circulating for weeks that there would be a major drop in higher grades. First thoughts must go to the many students affected by this and who will be disappointed. Others will be relieved if things worked out for them. But there is a growing sense that too many students have been badly let down as we emerge from the pandemic. There are many reasons for this, not simply the results. An opportunity to make positive change has been missed as we revert to the old ways of testing students. Lessons may not have been learned.

The results today confirmed what was expected.  This was no real surprise as the results in Scotland for Highers and Advanced Highers released last week were similarly afflicted.  The usual reports abound congratulating students who achieved the results they wanted. This is fine, but they are tinged with disappointment as a very large number have missed out. Too many students have a right to feel let down and more focus should be made on their situation.

A-levels are king.

A-levels still dominate the landscape as the most powerful driver for university access. Less attention has been paid to the Vocational Technical Qualifications (VTQs). These include BTECs and T-levels. Whilst the students taking the new T-levels might feel they are ‘guinea pigs’, those finishing their BTEC courses might feel like they are becoming extinct. But for the VTQ students, the examinations and assessments are just as important. Meanwhile the deflation of the A-level grades has impacted more students as a record number enter the UCAS clearing process this year. With73,000 fewer A*/As awarded this year, nearly 60,000 are still seeking university places.

Capping student numbers by shifting grade boundaries.

With different examination boards come different examinations of varying difficulty. It is also inevitable that examinations will vary in difficulty year on year. This means some process of ‘normalisation’ must take place after scripts are marked.  As an aside, in my experience this does not happen in universities, and a wide range of assessments are used in deciding a degree class outcome. This means that there can be good years and less good years over time.  But for national school examinations, grade inflation is likely to be mostly down to shifting grade boundaries. Also, the decision to ‘normalise’ results by setting grade boundaries makes it easier to ‘inadvertently’ exert a cap on student numbers achieving the grades for a university place.

This has been going on for many years and effectively pivots grades around those commonly made to students in offers from universities. It first came to light in articles in the Observer in 1977 and early 1978 with ‘GCE – Sitting in with the markers’ (10th July 1977), ‘GCE – Pass or fail – How the examiners decide’ (17th July 1977), and ‘The myths about exam standards’ (9th  February 1978). This was reviewed by TEFS in 2018 who asked, ‘A-Level Playing Field or not: Have things changed over time?’ (17th August 2018). Back in 1977, this meant that 30% were set up to fail at A-level from the outset. Also, that only 35% were going to get above grade C, the pivot point level needed for university entry in most cases. Disappointment was on the menu for a large number of candidates.

It seems little has changed, apart from grades drifting up before the system collapsed during the pandemic and number control was lost. The real aim of the government seems to be to revert to more control over numbers by stricter grade boundaries. The only constant in the equation may be that students remain the same while other variables shift up and down.

Those let down by the A-level results.

After a large inflation of grades during the pandemic years, the results this year crashed close to the 2019 results. For most, the examinations earlier this year were the first in person and career-breaking ones they have sat. After lockdowns, online teaching, and chaotic studies, they might have expected better. Instead, they found that their predicted grades offered a false hope and the reality of lower grades hit some very hard this week.

Despite this the number of 18-year-olds already accepted today is relatively high and only slightly down than the same time last year (Figure 1 from UCAS data today). It appears that many universities have adjusted to the changes.

The best analysis around at this time, based mostly on UCAS data, comes from Mark Corver of DataHE. Figure 2 shows the percentage drop in grades from last year and the important pivotal point between grades AAB and ABB. This is particularly important in getting a university place and dropping one grade could rule out being accepted at many higher tariff universities.

The DataHE observation shown in Figure 3, about the numbers falling below the AAB pivot point, translates into at least 55,000 students plunged into clearing applications. This is exactly what has happened. There were 90,000 above this level two years ago, but this year it has dropped to 58,000.

The stubborn disadvantage gap.

Particularly concerning is the widening gap between the least and most advantaged. This has moved little over the years and shows no serious sign of being addressed. Using the current UCAS data, it is clear that not much has changed in 2023 and it will take more that shifting grades to foster equality. Figure 4 below from UCAS data shows the lack of progression over the years using POLAR 4 quintile categories for participation areas. The same pattern exists for other measures of disadvantage and highlights a failure in policies designed to improve participation and equality.

Two actions are needed if things are to change.

Firstly, reform the examinations system to better reflect the ability and context students must endure.

Secondly, make radical improvements to schools and the environment in which students find themselves to better match the experiences of the most advantaged.

T-levels and BTECs.

Reports this week paid very little attention to the Vocational Technical Qualifications or VTQs. These include BTECs, Cambridge Nationals, Cambridge Technicals and the new ‘tough kid on the block’, the T Level, aiming to replace BTECs. These just as important for a significant number of students hoping to make it to a university course.

The heavy lifting still falls mainly onto Level 3 BTEC higher qualifications and to a lesser extent T-levels. Ofqual’s ‘Guide to the 2023 Level 3 qualification results for VTQs in England’ showed that over 378,000 results were issued for 575 vocational and technical qualifications. This is a substantial number despite many BTECs being unfunded. The number of BTECs could be seen as a very large dinosaur as they become extinct. However, the question still arises about whether grades were deflated alongside A-levels. In the case of BTECs, there is no clear evidence for this in the grade boundaries released in June or in the results posted so far. But at least the debacle of delayed results last year appears to have been avoided when, out of 226,998 Level 3 BTEC qualifications, an additional 8,756 were delayed (see TEFS 19th August 2022 ‘Exam results 2022 and the fallout arising’). There was an urgent review reported in December 2022 and this appears to have been effective.

T-levels are emerging as a disaster with too many students let down.

The numbers getting T-level results this week is still very low as those who started courses in 2021 emerge.  The government acknowledged that there would not be the same grade deflation for students on such a new course. That makes sense but seems many did not emerge unscathed as the attrition rate over 2 years was staggeringly high. The positive results come as little surprise since Education Secretary, Gillian Keegan noted in the Sunday Times  this week,

“The qualifications regulator, Ofqual, has asked awarding organisations to be flexible to reflect the fact T-levels are new, and that pupils and teachers are less familiar with the assessments”.

This raises the suspicion that T-levels were somehow made easier to pass for those surviving the course.  Sure enough, over 90% passed with 22.2% getting the top distinction and distinction* grades. But this may also reflect the high attrition rate. The provisional T-level results dropped for 3,448 students yesterday. But this was less than a third of the 5,210 who set out in 2021.  

The likely reasons for this were revealed earlier this month when OFSTED published its ‘T-level thematic review: final report’ that took a hard look at how T-levels were doing.  Despite the government exhorting the qualities and opportunities provided by the new qualifications, the reality is far from the aspiration and T-levels have got off to a very shaky start. See TEFS earlier this week with, ‘Tough exam results out soon and the Troubled-levels’.

Confidence and questions of reliability?

Last year, Dennis Sherwood published the book  ‘Missing the Mark’ (Canbury Press 2022.  This questioned the reliability of A-level grades and was reviewed by TEFS in ‘Exam results: Missing the mark and shifting the target’ last August.  Sherwood was quick to follow up on results day this year with ‘Exam results aren’t accurate enough to guarantee fair HE admissions’ in Times Higher Education. The logic is inexorable and compelling, yet it is ignored by Ofqual and the government. Sherwood asks,

If A-level grades are only ‘reliable to one grade either way’, where does that leave admissions officers deciding on borderline cases”.

However, university admissions officers are generally not ignoring the consequences of a ‘near miss’ at A-levels for most courses. This year might be a good case in point as many students were still offered places. Indeed, for the most competitive courses such as Medicine, other assessments are commonplace and offer another perspective on a student’s ability.  

With questions being raised about how reliable or fair the exam system is, the inherent flaws are affecting confidence by all parties involved. It was left to former Chief Executive of UCAS CEO, Mary Curnock-Cook, to try to shift the balance onto other more positive features of the exam system in a Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) article asking, ‘How reliable are exam grades?’.  This may be the only rational counterargument so far on the issue. Despite criticising the Sherwood proposition that ‘one in four grades is wrong’ as a “gross misunderstanding” she then accepts the inevitable reality that,

“We can all accept that there is inherent imprecision in many assessments, including in Higher Education”.

By putting the debate into a wider context, she offers another view that accounts for accepted international standards, the loss of confidence in the system during the height of the pandemic, and the low number of challenges to grades by schools to date. Certainly, it is important to stress that schools can ask to see scripts themselves if they have any concerns, but at a considerable cost. Also, by the time appeals are resolved it would be too late for the 2023 university entry. However, the number of challenges could indeed “explode” this year because of the grade deflation around the key pivot point of grades. We wait to see.

In the end, both arguments inform the debate and both are substantially correct. The problem inherent in the system lies elsewhere. Curnock-Cook is correct in saying,

“I would also not wish my confidence in the marking of the current exams to be misconstrued as unvarnished support for our current schools’ assessment approach”.

She won’t be the only one.

There must be a better approach and TEFS has argued for a radical change using a wider range of assessments than one-off exams so late in a school student’s last year. Back in 2012 TEFS looked at the system in ‘Examinations: From gold standard to fool’s gold’. Setting national exams earlier, as in Scotland and Ireland, is one well tested approach. Including an element of school continuous assessments is another. Some might argue that other ability tests could be added as favoured for some university degrees. All would give a broader view of a student’s knowledge, commitment to study and ability, and this could also bring the context into play as universities make decisions. It would reverse the flawed reforms proposed by the Education Secretary Michael Gove back in 2012 that eventually put undue emphasis on a final examination and led to schools working almost exclusively to the examination.

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: