Necessity breeds invention, and grade assessment has had to adapt quickly

17 May 2020, 6:00

This crisis has shown how well we can make transitions in order to protect students’ interests, says Julie Mizon

According to Dutch historian Rutger Bregman, crises bring out the best in us. And while it will take some time before we can assess the success of the rapid changes we’ve seen across the sector, there’s no doubt that, despite the physical distancing, the resolve for sector stakeholders to work together to protect students’ interests has surged, allowing us to make significant transitions in a short space of time.  

QAA’s Access to HE Diploma has had to change fast too. We’ve moved swiftly to an estimated grade model. Getting there required collaboration with Ofqual, the Department for Education, and Access Validating Agencies (AVAs), and we consulted extensively with Access students. And now that we’ve developed an Extraordinary Regulatory Framework (ERF) (‘extraordinary’ is the regulatory term – we’re not trumpet blowing) to make sure the principles for assessment are consistently applied, we’re talking to Access providers and students to make sure everyone knows what we’ve done and what’s going to happen. 

Consulting providers and students through webinars has been a great way to get a direct sense of what the key concerns are. Above all, course tutors want to make sure the grades they award are fair and that their students are as prepared for their transition to higher education as possible. 

The basic roadmap is clear. Students who plan to complete their Access to HE Diploma by July 31, 2020 will now receive estimated grades for all remaining assessments with submission dates after March 20, 2020. AVAs will ask course tutors to generate those estimated grades based on their professional judgment. Those really are cornerstones of the model: professional judgment and evidence. The evidence will include the student’s prior attainment, formative assessments and any other records of student performance. The course tutor will review all the grade indicators that have been given for a unit and will then determine the final grade for the unit using the existing method of establishing the midpoint of grades in the unit grade profile. 

This is the fairest solution, as ultimately tutors are best placed to judge the likely performance of their students. QAA and AVAs will do everything they can to make sure grades awarded this year are as fair as possible. Grades will be subject to quality assurance processes, including internal moderation, external moderation and standardisation. 

We have to make sure that student awards and results have been quality assured and approved. They must also be ready around the same time as in previous years, to allow timely transfer to UCAS and higher education providers. That means grades will reach UCAS by July 27, 2020, and should reach students around the same time.  

Occasionally, students may feel their grade doesn’t accurately reflect their performance. That’s a risk of any estimated model. In such cases, students will have the opportunity to appeal, or may choose to sit their assessments at the earliest reasonable opportunity. The latter may, however, impact their ability to progress to higher education in September – and it’s down to us and to course providers to make those choices clear. We’ve hosted webinars for students too – and there are more coming up this month.   

Last week we published further detail for students continuing their studies after July 31, 2020. There are three key considerations for providers after the summer. Firstly, the challenge for tutors and students in a full or partial move to digital delivery. Secondly, we have to be alive to the possibility that there may be changes to the way work is assessed. And finally, the possibility that, depending on provider and AVA arrangements, assessments won’t happen as or when originally planned.  

We’re encouraging continued learning, where possible, because it’s critical for students to be as prepared as possible for their transition to higher education. And we have to be open to other options too. The ERF provides a structure and rules around who is eligible for estimated grades, which is particularly helpful for students on flexible learning pathways. We are working with AVAs and providers to provide information about other options for students, for example, breaks in learning. AVAs are also working with providers where students are due to complete close to, but after, 31 July 31.

Ultimately, we have to be open to the possibility of continuing change too. Through collaboration and solidarity, we’ve got to a place where we can offer the best possible outcome for students. If the pandemic context changes, collaboration will be important again.

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