Thursday, 25 February 2021

Grade inflation, or why teachers always get the blame.

Sorry for a non running post on a normally running related blog, but this is too long for a Tweet of a Facebook status update, and I haven't exactly been jetting around the world running exciting races.  

Picture the scene, or rather the markbook.  If there was a fire at school I reckon every single teacher would risk life, limb and the lovely new set of pens that they treated themselves to last week in order to dash back in and grab their markbook - that is if they had been foolish enough to become separated from it in the first place.  Yes, the data is all recorded on the school system - unless it crashed as every teacher tried to meet the deadline for inputting half term test - but the system records raw numbers.  It doesn't have any of the squiggles and annotations that serve to put our results into context (e.g. 'J got 75% despite missing out a q because the pages stuck together' or 'C struggled as just moved to school and hadn't covered this topic fully' or 'D's gran was rushed to hospital last night').   Over the course of a student's school career we get to know these young people really well.  We went into teaching because we wanted to work with young people. We are interested in them, invested in their future and we work really hard to make sure that they have the best possible chance of doing as well as they possibly can.  

So now we are faced with the situation, for a second year running, that we get to 'decide' (according to the media) what grades our students will get at GCSE and A'level.  And we are being told, again according to the media, that this will result in grade inflation.  We'll just ignore the fact that the thorny topic of grade inflation has reared its head every August for as long as I have been teaching - i.e. even when there have been externally set exams.  

This is what will probably happen, and I will concentrate on two groups of students here to illustrate my point.  

The first is a group of really hardworking students who have been hitting grade 9 (old A*) throughout the year, with the odd wobble down to a B if they have had a bad day/their cat has died/their romantic life has gone off the rails.  Let's say I've got six of them in one of my classes working pretty consistently at that level, they all got 9s or very high 8s in the mock - which was an previously unseen past paper, and every topic test and homework supports the fact that these are bright, hard working children who could each and every one of them go on to get a 9 in their GCSE.  But, and it is a BIG BUT, I know from years of experience that one of them will come out of the exam hall in floods of tears and sob 'But, Miss, I had a total 'mare! I messed it up totally because (insert reason here.'  I will feel utterly helpless and murmur soothing words.  On results day five of my six students with a grade 9 target will be celebrating and one will be sobbing.  What should I do with my centre assessed grades (CAGs)?  All six of them are capable of the top grade, but I know there is a good chance one will 'mess up' (in their mind) and get an 8 or even a 7, but I have no way of knowing which one.  Do I role a dice to choose?  Of course not, I award them all the grade that every assessed piece of work they have done throughout the two year course informs me that they are capable of achieving.  Hence the grades will appear to be 'inflated.'

The second group are on what used to be known as the C/D borderline.  These are the students we want to get from D up to C (and not just because that looks far better on school league tables).  In 'new money' we are looking at a 4 being roughly where the C used to be.  Note the word 'roughly' - I know it isn't exactly the same but it is, for the purposes of this blog, close enough.  Imagine I have five or six students working at this level.  Some of them will be working hard, but still struggling.  Others, despite me using every trick in my tool box, just haven't managed to fall in love with Physics (yet), and the rest will be, for the want of a better phrase, a little bit lazy - no amount of Haribo bribes or detentions for incomplete work have motivated them to hand in homework on time.  In the mocks, they all got a 3 (a D in old money).  Some didn't care, let's say half of them didn't care.  They are never going to do Physics again and to be honest can't wait until the day that they can leave my lab safe in the knowledge that they will never have to listen to me bang on about electromagnetic induction and Fleming's Left Hand Rule ever again.  The other half of the group react differently.  They may realise that they are so close to the magical 4 that they put in a bit of work and manage to get that 4 in the actual GCSE exam, in doing so one of them will realise that actually, with a bit of consistent work and practice, Physics is really quite straightforward and, shh, don't tell anyone, they actually quite enjoy it.  They work hard and bump up their eventual grade from a 3 (in the mock) to a 5 or even a 6 in the actual exam.  

The problem is that every member of this second group has the potential to surprise me, pull out the stops, work their socks off during study leave, and leave me grinning from ear to ear on results day as we fist bump the air in celebration.  But they are a much more difficult, less homogenous group that the first group of quiet, hardworking students.  It could be anyone of them.  It is, despite having done this for years, still difficult to predict which student/s will end up covered in glory. Awarding all of this group a high CAG is obviously not the way to go, but awarding them all a 3 doesn't sit well with my experience of what happens in real life.  In a normal year, out of this group of six I would expect four to get a 4, one to get a 3 and the final one to get a 5 or better.  But how to decide which ones?  I suspect, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, that most teachers would play it safe and award a 4.  Again, it looks like grade inflation, but it is actually just an attempt to be fair. 

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