Exams can’t close the attainment gap. We must address the underlying causes

Qualification reform is needed, but won't be enough on its own to address issues of inclusion, diversity and equality

Qualification reform is needed, but won't be enough on its own to address issues of inclusion, diversity and equality

17 Aug 2022, 18:41

Disadvantaged students are more likely to see their grades adversely affected by the Covid pandemic, but expecting the exams system alone to eradicate these inequalities is unrealistic, write Dr Michelle Meadows and Professor Jo-Anne Baird.

Tomorrow’s A-level, AS, BTEC and T-level results represent students’ achievements in a system that is returning to normal. Examinations have never been so popular as when they were not available during the pandemic and they are back in most subjects this year.

This year the assessments have had some adaptations, such as forewarning of topics that would be covered, or changing practical activities in science.

Students taking this year’s exams have been studying for the courses over the pandemic and their final year of GCSE study was affected too.

The adaptations and this year’s grading are designed to recognise the challenges that students have faced.

The impact of the pandemic on educational opportunities has been complex. Even some young people from relatively well-off backgrounds will have been hard hit and will have had to work exceptionally hard to catch-up. 

For example, parents such as medics and teachers may not have been able to give their children support because they were working flat out. 

That said, even with the additional support in place, on average the performance of students from disadvantaged backgrounds will be impacted more than other students.

Learning loss is greater for poorer students

Research has shown that the impact of the pandemic on learning loss has been greater for disadvantaged students, such as those receiving free school meals.  

We know that young people from economically disadvantaged families, single-parent households and with less educated parents spent less time learning than their advantaged peers.  

Those with SEND had a great deal of trouble accessing the equipment and support they needed to engage with education.

And then of course there was the issue of digital poverty. No wonder commentators are sceptical about the impact of England’s national tutoring programme. 

There is no evidence that the adaptations or this year’s grading policy will eradicate inequalities. After all, that would be an unrealistic expectation of the qualification system.

For the past two years, teacher assessment bailed the qualification system out, so that young people could progress to the next stage of their education or employment. 

Grades from teacher assessment are well known to be higher than from examinations, almost universally, wherever they are used. Returning to pre-pandemic standards was never going to be easy.  

Grades issued over this period need to be interpreted in the context in which the qualifications were taken.  

Rather than reverting to 2019 standards in one fell swoop, there has been a transition, with the 2022 standards representing a mid-way point between 2021 and 2019 outcomes.  

This is a sensible policy; an immediate return to 2019 standards would have been highly disruptive at a time when stability is sorely required.  

Likewise, a whole new set of standards through wholesale qualification reform would take time and requires a level of resourcing that is not available in the education system presently.

‘Don’t feel dismayed by comparisons with last year’

Teachers, lecturers and school and college leaders analysing the results should not feel dismayed by comparisons with last year.  

Instead, a more sensible comparison to make would be with 2019 results, or better still, with an average of 2021 and 2019 results.  

But schools and colleges typically have small numbers of learners entering for each subject and results can be volatile with small numbers of students.  

Now more than ever, university admissions tutors should take account of the context in which the grades were gained, to appreciate applicants’ capabilities in the face of varying levels of educational support.

The pandemic has shone a light on, as well as exacerbated educational inequality. Reviews of the qualification systems in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have started and calls for reforms in England are being made.  

Addressing issues of inclusion, diversity and equality are consistent themes. Whilst qualification reform is a necessary element to impact on these issues, it will not be enough in itself.

‘We must overcome educational barriers’

Privileged groups are able to turn systems to their advantage wherever there are levers that can be used, so closing attainment gaps has to go beyond qualification design to the underlying causes of differences in attainment – to the educational barriers and opportunities themselves.  

Policies that appear to be helpful, counter-intuitively, can turn out to be no help at all. For example, we know from research that modular examinations did not close attainment gaps and offering more options in examinations does not help either. 

Qualification reform for A-levels is surely necessary in the next few years of pandemic recovery, since it was last undertaken wholesale in 2010.  

A static qualification system does not spell high quality. However, reforms will need to be accompanied by good teacher supply, professional development and appropriate funding for schools and colleges.  

The economy of the future involves changing careers for young people, so we need a qualification system that allows for second chances, for changing trajectory and that engages with issues of local, national and international skills needs. 

A healthy choice of vocational qualifications also needs to form part of that mix. 

Dr Michelle Meadows was Ofqual’s deputy chief regulator and executive director for strategy, risk and research until September 2021. She is now associate professor in the Department of Education at the University of Oxford.

Dr Jo-Anne Baird sits on the Ofqual standards advisory group and is a commissioner for the Independent Assessment Commission. She is director of the Department of Education at Oxford.

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