Fairer grades

Will emergency measures prove to have been the key to fairer admissions, based on potential more than performance?

A slightly shorter version of this blog originally appeared on Wonkhe as part of its ‘Build Back Higher’ series of short articles about the potential positive impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic on UK higher education.   


In the face of the difficult logistics of feeding his troops, Napoleon looked for innovations to ensure his forces could carry supplies that would remain edible over lengthy campaigns. As a result, margarine was developed as a substitute for the more perishable butter and the canning process was invented. Without war, we would not have baked beans.

As the clichés have it, desperate times call for desperate measures and necessity is the mother of invention.

The pandemic has undoubtedly driven a host of inventive approaches to teaching, assessment and much else that we may want to keep. But surely no one will ever hail the exams debacle of 2020 and the centre-assessed grades that followed as a welcome novelty?

Maybe we should. One day, we might look back on this cohort as the experiment we never could have done otherwise. 2020 may be the year in which almost everyone got the grade they had the potential to get, rather than what they scored on the day of an exam, when they were ill or the exam room was too hot, or when they were fine, but their examiner’s dog had just died.

As Denis Sherwood (@nookophile) has shown, almost half of all exam grades in some subjects are wrong and even Ofqual’s head, Dame Glenys Stacey has acknowledged that exam results have a fuzziness of a grade either way.

Meanwhile good teachers know their pupils and understand what they’re capable of at their best. Surely students should be admitted to university based on what they might achieve if given a chance rather than as a prize-giving ceremony for one day’s performance.

I’d like to think that after this year we will revisit Level 3 assessments (that’s A-Level and their equivalents, but it applies to other levels too, for that matter) and ask whether summative exams tell us what we need to know in order to allocate places in higher education fairly. We’ll reconsider the role of continual assessment and, rather than dismiss teachers’ professionalism, we’ll work harder to eliminate any bias in their judgements (because it’s not as if examiners are immune to bias).

As a result of pandemic panic grading, this year’s entry cohort may turn out to be the most diverse yet and if their learning proves to be as successful as other years, it will be hard to argue why student recruitment shouldn’t take more account of context and less of exam results.


For further reading on this topic I recommend Mark Corver‘s brilliant analysis of admissions driven by predicted grades in HEPI’s recent collection of essays Where next for university admissions?

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