First-year results for health and science T Level students will be regraded after the exams regulator found exam papers were not fit for purpose, FE Week can reveal.
An Ofqual review identified a catalogue of issues including question errors and inadequate mark schemes. The watchdog has now ruled that students’ grades did not validly measure their performance.
The “serious” incident comes after large numbers of students complained that they received lower than expected first-year grades over the summer for the flagship new qualification, citing severe problems with the core exam papers.
Many said they were predicted A* to Cs but received Ds, Es and U grades.
Around 1,600 students across 76 colleges and schools on the two-year course – which launched in 2021 – picked up their first-year results in August, although they have not been released publicly.
A petition started by disheartened students which secured more than 1,200 signatures said that the exams contained some topics which were not covered in the syllabus, while the textbook was reported to have only been released a few weeks before the exam.
They demanded grade adjustments in light of the problems – an option that was originally refused by awarding body NCFE.
However, a review by Ofqual and the Department for Education resulted in a summit of college principals which took place on Wednesday morning. A letter issued later that day by the DfE’s director of professional and technical education, Sue Lovelock, confirmed the exams had serious and significant issues.
The letter, seen by FE Week, said: “Ofqual have now completed their thorough review of the core assessment papers. This identified issues including question errors, inadequate mark schemes, and questions covering areas not explicitly in the specification.
“Given the breadth and volume of issues, Ofqual has determined that the assessments do not secure a sufficiently valid or reliable measure of student performance. This is obviously a significant finding and a serious matter. Ofqual has initiated an investigation to identify the issues in how these papers and mark schemes were developed to ensure that NCFE address them for future series.”
As a result, students’ grades will change to be based entirely on their employer set project grade. However, it recognised that students should not be unfairly penalised, and any students who secured a higher grade in their overall core component than their employer set project can carry the higher mark forward.
For those that did not secure a grade they were happy with, an opportunity to re-sit the employer set project this autumn will be provided. They will not be charged for the resit.
It marks the biggest hurdle to date for the bellwether new post-16 qualifications, designed to be the technical equivalent to A-levels.
T Level grades comprise a core exam component, employer set project and an industry work placement of 45 days.
The DfE also said that “Ofqual will review the employer set project tasks and mark schemes to check that they have met expectations”.
Following the DfE’s letter, one tutor who delivered the course but wished to remain anonymous said: “The response from Ofqual shows the gravity of the situation, despite repeated warnings the NCFE did not adapt appropriately to concerns raised, nor did they respond appropriately when the results came out.
“Colleges, including ours, have lost up to half or all of their students to other health courses or out of healthcare completely. Those left are still in limbo over what they want to do as the changes have come too late.”
He said his college’s numbers for first years this year was half that of last year, despite higher application numbers.
One student, who did not wish to be named, said: “I think it’s good for people whose grades have improved, but I think it is a bit of a kick in the teeth considering we’ve spent a whole year learning the content for the exams for it all to be ignored.”
But some students who got the same grades on the core exams and the employer set project said they would not benefit.
The DfE’s letter said this would be a one-year adjustment only.
In addition, the DfE said that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) will review the content of all three health and science T Level pathways, and consult with employers, colleges and schools to see if changes are needed.
The DfE recognised the problems could have impact on recruiting or retaining students, and said that it did not expect to recoup capital funding for providers which have delayed delivery or low numbers for a year as a result of the problems.
But the news comes too late for some students, with some already having been encouraged to switch to BTEC alternatives, while others have dropped out entirely.
A spokesperson from NCFE said the awarding body is working with providers on the details around using only employer set project grades as student outcomes.
“We are also keen to ensure a smooth transition for students who want to move to alternative provision,” the spokesperson added. “In addition to this, we intend to provide a raft of early interventions and personal support to maximise future assessment success.”
T Levels were launched in 2020. Full results for the first three T Levels were issued last month. First year grades for the health and science T Level, which launched in September 2021, were also issued over the summer.
A further three T Levels pathways begin this September.