Unpicking the A Level Results: 2020

We live in an unprecedented time. It has been generations since a global pandemic has affected us all. Although young people may not be as vulnerable physically to COVID-19, they have not been exempt from the implications of school closures and the cancellation of the 2020 summer exam series. This post aims to provide a balanced view of the background and results from the 2020 A Level results, and also to provide some advice and encouragement to students.

Context

The closure came about in part due to predicted widespread staff absences, but also due to a significant number of students expecting to be ill or self-isolating during exam season. Once the decision to cancel the exam series was made on 18th March 2020, there was never going to be an easy solution to replace external examinations.

If the externally moderated exams were not replaced with anything, and the year was effectively cancelled, it would have had devastating consequences for all students expecting to get their A Levels this year and move onto the next stage of their educational journey. However, wholly relying on unmoderated teacher grades would have been unfair to cohorts from different years, and those from schools where the teachers were more cautious in their predictions. One of the purposes of standardised national grades is to ensure that the distribution of grades is similar each year. This allows those who use grades (universities, employers, etc.) to have confidence that the grades in each given year are similar to previous years, and carry the same worth.

So in order to provide standardised grades when students were not going to be sitting any exams, Ofqual decided to centre assessment grades (GAGs), which are basically the teachers’ predicted grades, and put them into a statistical model called the Direct Centre Performance (DCP) model with some other information. This included the historical performance of the school and students’ prior attainment, amongst other details (see here for full details on the model). It must be noted here, the popular aphorism that, “all models are wrong, but some are useful,” and the DCP is no exception.

Results

Let’s take a look at the aggregate A Level results to get an understanding of where 2020 fits in amongst previous years. (All data is from publicly available sources, such as Ofqual).

Ofqual, grades, A Level results, student, performance
The change in A Level grades awarded over the past 12 years (Source: Ofqual)

I’ve plotted the cumulative percentages of students who’ve achieved various grades in the figure shown. For a decade there appears to be a general upward trend for all grades awarded, with the greatest year-on-year increase from 2019-2020. The largest year-on-year drop in grades was the previous year, 2018-2019. The drop is likely due to the change in A Levels from being modular to those with exams at the end of the two-year period. There doesn’t appear to be a significant difference in grade distribution over the past decade – this is partly by design, as mentioned above with the moderation of national standardised exams. Moreover, there is also no significant difference at an aggregate between male and female students.

All models are wrong, but some are useful

Popular statistics aphorism, origin perhaps George Box FRS

The number of students achieving 3A*s has dropped from 3007 to 2996 from 2019 to 2020. In the same time period, the percentage of students getting an A/A* has increased from 25.2% to 27.6%. The average number of A Levels that students have been awarded has broadly been the same for the past four years at a mean of 2.67. In terms of Ofqual’s grade adjustments, 96.5% of grades awarded only vary +/- 1 grade from the teacher CAGs. Furthermore, when segmenting the differences between CAGs and final grades by socio-economic status (SES), it is observed that at A/A* grades the difference is larger for students with higher SES than those with lower SES. This trend is reversed for all other grades. However, in all cases, the aggregate final grade for students in 2020 is higher than that in 2019.

Aftermath

On the face of it, looking at the data, it seems as if students are no worse off than last year. Though this would be assuming that this year is comparable to last year, or any other previous year. As I mentioned at the start of this post, this is an unprecedented time.

Although Ofqual has tried to make decisions in students’ favour, where possible, the use of an unhuman statistical model is inevitably going to affect students who vary significantly from their peers – the outliers. The student, who despite going to a school with poor historical performance, has worked really hard to be predicted high grades by their teacher. Or the student who did poorly in their mocks, got a kick up their backside, and decided to study harder subsequently. Particularly affected, are the students who were on marginal predicted grades. Whether marginal from the point of view of university admissions, or marginal from the perspective of a “pass” or “fail” grade. An adjustment to the grades of these students has left them missing their university offers and bereft of direction.

Since these “outlier” students typically come from state schools, there is a bitter sense of injustice in the air. This has been exacerbated by the fact that subjects with smaller cohort sizes (say a school with a handful of students studying Classical Greek) were exempt from Ofqual’s standardisation, and teacher CAGs were used as final grades instead. Though this decision was made as it’s not possible to accurately standardise small groups, since these small cohorts are typically seen in independent schools, it has unfortunately led to a greater disparity in outcomes. 

Although the adjusted results based on Ofqual’s standardising model will have helped to meet their aim of allowing students to move on to the next stage of their journey, there will no doubt be some disappointed students. There will be sadness, tears and heartache. For this reason, I also wanted to write a few words of advice and encouragement.

Advice for students

You didn’t get the grades you expected? Ofqual’s calculated grade is but one of three grades that you are able to use. The other two are your mock exam grade or the one you would get if you choose to sit the exam in autumn. If your grades are lower than expected, your school will be able to tell you what your CAGs were. Based on this information, you’ll be able to see how much your grades were adjusted, and take appropriate action from there.

The only way you as a student can appeal your grades are by asking whether the school made an admin error when submitting the CAG or your name in the rank order of students. If they agree they did, then they can submit an appeal to the exam board. However, schools can also make appeals for groups of students at a time if they believe that previous cohorts are not representative of the current cohort. So it may be worth seeing if there is a group of you facing similar issues, who can argue this case to your school. They may then be able to argue on your behalf to the exam board. If you’re planning on appealing, do it soon, as the final date is mid-September.

Universities have been encouraged to be flexible this year, and so it will be worth calling them to see whether they would still take you on. Failing that, ask if they would be able to offer you a similar course at that university, assuming you care more about the university than the course. If it is the course that you have your mind set on, then if may be worth looking at the UCAS Clearing system to see if another university offers your course and has a space for someone with your grades.

This is an incredibly difficult time with both pandemic and A Level grades, and I cannot begin to imagine how you must be feeling if you missed your grades and are left uncertain about the future. You are still young though, and there are plenty of options that are still open to you. So you didn’t get the grades to get into university this year… so what? Use your mock grade, sit the exam in autumn, sit them next year or even consider other routes to university like degree apprenticeships. Remember this, it is how you respond to adversity that defines the strength of your character.

– Akash

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