England's teachers will feel the pressure over student grades this summer | Anonymous

After working as a maths and physics teacher for four years, I decided I wanted a change of career. I spent four years in cancer screening and diagnosis before returning to teaching in 2019. Much of that time was spent discussing the sensitivity and specificity of tests. Whereas a “sensitive” test correctly identifies people who have a particular condition, a “specific” test generates a negative result for people who don’t have the condition. The same principle can be applied to exam grading: a sensitive test correctly identifies and awards the top grades to students who have performed best, while a specific test identifies those who haven’t performed as well, awarding them lower grades.

In the perennial conversation about grade inflation, people are essentially concerned that testing is becoming less specific, and that too many students who don’t excel in a subject are getting excellent grades. This is what has bothered some about the news that exams will be replaced by teacher-assessed grades in England. This system is far better than the algorithm debacle last year, and it may be the best option for assessing students during a pandemic when exams can’t go ahead. But teacher-assessed grades will create their own forms of unfairness. The question is how you deal with these.

Let’s be clear: exams are awful. As a maths teacher, I’ve seen many students struggle with the mental anguish and stress they involve. Not all students excel at this type of learning, and some do better with coursework and continuous assessments. But while exams are undoubtedly an imperfect system, they are one of the fairest ways to award grades. Basing grades entirely on teacher assessments can’t account for the inherent unpredictability of exams. In any year, a student who didn’t seem to bother in class, and perhaps scored low in their mocks, can pull it out of the bag on exam day and amaze everyone – their teachers included.

Ordinarily, the inherent uncertainty of exams is left in the lap of the gods – the examiners. Of course, this system might not seem perfectly fair, but the very fact that all students sit the same exams means there’s a limit on how unfair the assessment process can be. And any discontent with the exam – mitigating circumstances, multiple choice answers where none of them fits, particles travelling faster than the speed of light, Ophelia featuring in a Richard III question – can be aimed at the exam boards. So any appeals are handled by them too, meaning there is greater fairness than when each school looks after its own.

This year, any uncertainty (“he didn’t do well on the assessment, but his work in the year has been good”), has to be handled by the same people who have to face the students and their parents: teachers. This will inevitably involve some element of bias – with students who have performed better in class, or seemed more switched on throughout the year, potentially being awarded better grades. Teachers will face difficult decisions: round marks down to avoid grade inflation, and you risk unfairly penalising some students, with inevitably upset emails and phone calls from parents to follow. Round marks up, and the tests become less specific – leading to accusations of grade inflation.

I am lucky – I have colleagues, a headteacher and head of department in whom I have complete faith and confidence. But although teachers’ professionalism and integrity will act as a brake on grade inflation, the pressure to push grades higher will be a logical outcome of the teacher-assessed solution to scrapping exams – particularly in a year when many students will likely be under-performing as a result of learning gaps. It makes schools’ data look better, it keeps parents happy, and – most importantly – it can only help their own students.

And the upshot is that education bodies will be pressured to find ways of managing grade inflation. One of the easiest ways of doing this is to push lower grades down, unwittingly penalising students in the process. In my first teaching job, I worked at one of the poorest schools in Birmingham. I had the honour of teaching maths to the bottom set of year 8s. Any new arrivals to school who didn’t speak English – and there were many – were put in the bottom set because they couldn’t complete as much of the assessments they were given. Of course not; the tests were in English (an excellent example of an “insensitive” test).

But it was those students who really started to excel when they picked up the language. Students like my year 8s, whose parents don’t necessarily speak confident English and aren’t able to be outspoken advocates for their children because they don’t understand the system, or lack the confidence to ask, are most likely to have their grades pushed downwards.

And the calculated decisions that examiners make about grades and exam responses is exactly the opposite of the relationship a good teacher has with their students. My students aren’t a bunch of data points, or cells in a colourful Excel spreadsheet, but real people with real lives and futures ahead of them. For my current year 11 and year 13 students, who are coming to the end of their GCSE and A-level maths courses, I have had the pleasure of being their advocate for two years. I have been there when they were worried and anxious, whether about tests, or problems at home, or returning to school after lockdown.

I gave them pep talks before sitting their assessments late last year, convinced them of the worth of after-school sessions and spoke about them with pride to their families. I’ve counselled them on post-school options, university choices and Ucas applications, poring over personal statements, practising interviews and highlighting courses they might like. None of this is unique: it’s what teachers do.

But all of it relies on a relationship of trust, mutual recognition and honesty. And the difficulty with teacher-assessed grades, even if they’re the best of a bad set of options for assessing students during a pandemic, is that in making teachers into examiners, they alter that relationship of trust.


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