Exam inequality: what is the solution?


Anxious, confused, abandoned. This is how many students have felt when taking exams during the pandemic. For many young people, their education predominates other aspects of their lives and is seen as a critical factor of their self-worth. That is why the government has been condemned for turning exams and grades into a perplexing, political playground with little regard for students’ wellbeing. However, these changes may ultimately lead to a better method of assessment in the future.

In the second year of ‘teacher assessed grades’ replacing formal in-person exams, many have criticised this year’s formulation of results, deeming them inflated and less valuable in comparison to previous years. There was a sharp rise in top grades recorded at A level: the proportion of students getting top grades (A* and A) has risen by almost 75% since the last time in-person exams were taken in 2019.

The proportion of students getting top grades (A* and A) has risen by almost 75% since the last time in-person exams were taken

With the increases in top grades as well as the growing number of students applying for university, there is pressure on top universities to offer more places for competitive courses. This has been especially difficult for medicine courses, resulting in financial incentives being offered for students asked to change or delay their places due to a lack of space. In addition, some universities may be introducing entrance exams as Vice-Chancellors claim teacher assessed A-level grades are not objective in sorting out the ‘brightest’ students.

Last year’s results were formed by a government algorithm, designed to combat grade inflation, and was to be used to standardise the teacher-predicted grades for A level and GCSE qualifications. 

The release of results led to major public outcry: nearly 36% were one grade lower than teachers’ predictions and 3% were down two grades. Particular criticism was made of the effect the algorithm was accused of having in disproportionately downgrading the results of state schools, thus disadvantaging pupils of lower socio-economic backgrounds, as the algorithm focused on small cohort sizes and previous school performance. This system was then promptly scrapped and replaced by the current arrangements.

However, it can be argued that exam result inequality is even worse this year. According to the official exam body Ofqual, in 2019 there was a 24% gap between private schools and state schools in top grades at A level. This year, it has risen to 31%.

For students in Durham, a recent Palatinate article found that students felt the online exam format was less stressful than regular examinations

It is important to take a nuanced approach when comparing previous years’ results with recent grades, as they have been formed using different methods. Some course results can be entirely dependent on one or two exams, leading to immense stress and pressure for students to perform at their absolute best in a two-hour window. In contrast, teacher assessed grades have been able to appraise a student’s performance over a whole year rather than a couple of hours. Exam boards have also supported these changes, saying this allows for no-one’s results to be determined by a ‘bad day’ and that students have “multiple chances” to show that they can do well. 

This has sparked many debates as to whether traditional exams are the fairest representation of a student’s ability, as well as whether the timed and memory-focused skills of exams are applicable in today’s technological job landscape.

For students in Durham, a recent Palatinate article found that students felt the online exam format was less stressful than regular examinations. According to a poll conducted by Durham Polling for Palatinate, 51% of the 271 respondents believed online exams give students a better opportunity to demonstrate academic ability, and a majority would welcome the continuation of the online exam format.

The pandemic has made everybody re-evaluate conventional aspects of their lives, from the rise of working from home to the social etiquette of wearing masks. Perhaps it is time to reassess how the education system appraises student ability, allowing them to show their true potential without the social and mental pressure of traditional exams.

Image: jackhynes via Creative Commons

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