There seems to have been surprise that the grades awarded by teachers this year were manipulated to provide general parity with previous years. This being done to avoid the prospect of 'grade inflation'. But examination results are manipulated every year for exactly the same reason. It is, of course, difficult to ensure that the examination paper set this year will discriminate between students in exactly the same way as the previous year's paper. So, for the cohort as a whole, statistical techniques will often be employed to normalise the distribution of marks before (largely subjective) decisions are taken about where to place the grade boundaries. Any notion that examinations provide some absolute standard of performance is mistaken.
The process is essentially one of placing students in a rank order of performance and then adjusting the grades to fit (with some minor variation) the pattern of previous years. Provided one does not take the grade awarded too seriously there is perhaps some justification for such manipulation applied across the entire cohort. It may have been a good year for some schools and a poor year for others but the process allows for this without the results from previous years affecting the grades awarded to a school which didn't do well in previous years. If reports are to be believed, it seems that in moderating teacher grades the normalisation process was applied on a school by school basis. If this was done, it was clearly unfair and it was right to abort the entire operation and revert to teacher grades as being the least unfair system in the circumstances.
That then leaves the question of how reliable teacher assessments are. Can we be sure that the interpretation of the grade descriptors are applied consistently across schools? Can we be sure that teacher assessments are independent of personal bias in relationships? Can we be sure that parental pressure (especially in better off neighbourhoods) has played no part in decisions? It is no criticism of teachers to say that we cannot be sure. But are the additional teacher grades awarded this year a worse predictor of final university performance than those initially awarded by the Scottish Qulifications Authority? There is an interesting longitudinal study here for any PhD student looking for a topic.
Given that teacher assessments this year resulted in a higher proportion of students gaining better grades, does this mean that teachers are too lenient or too optimistic about likely student performance? Maybe. But another explanation is that teacher assessment is not based on performance on a particular day but reflects a judgement made over time, seeing perhaps a growing student confidence or seeing good work produced in circumstances less stressful than an examination. The vast majority of teachers act in a professional way and will have evidence to support their judgements, even if the results vary somewhat between schools.
It may be that examinations are the 'gold standard' of performance and are unlikely to be abandoned in the near future. But we should be less sure as to what the results tell us about the quality of schools. I have several times been told at parent evenings that, 'I don't mind how my child does as long as they are happy and healthy – and enjoy school'. I know such claims are often changed when the prospect of an examination looms but that relates to the competitive and stressful environment often found in secondary schools.
There was recently some media interest in a study conducted by the University of Bristol which showed that 'lockdown resulted in lower levels of anxiety' while students were out of school. The actual report is more nuanced than the headline suggests, but it does provide some grounds for wondering what the present examination-driven ethos of Scottish secondary schools does to student wellbeing and mental health.
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