A level results: student stress, education reform and the sawtooth effect

Schools and students will need to act now to ensure that outcomes are fair in the light of previous reforms to A level exams

Devika Dahiya cries in joy upon learning here A-level examination results at Jumeirah College School 

(Photo by Reem Mohammed/The National)

Reporter:  Caline Malek
Section: NA
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This year marks the first sitting of the newly reformed A level examinations introduced by the UK government in September 2015. Until this year, students sat AS level examinations at the end of their first year of sixth form in addition to producing coursework, which contributed towards their final mark. The new A levels are linear qualifications that rely entirely on high-stakes examinations at the end of two years of study. Grades are now determined solely on pupil exam performance at the end of these courses.

We know from studies in the US that whenever an education reform is introduced we witness something known as the "sawtooth effect". According to OFQAL (the non-ministerial UK government department that regulates qualifications, exams and tests in England), the "sawtooth effect" is a pattern of change caused by assessment reform. Specifically, performance on high stakes assessments is often adversely affected when that assessment undergoes reform, followed by improving performance over time as students and teachers gain familiarity with the new test.

Commenting ahead of this year's results day, Rosamund McNeil, head of education and equalities at the National Union of Teachers, said: "This cohort was the first to face the new linear A levels and as such, the challenges that followed too. The upheaval of a hastily reformed curriculum and the changes leading to a reduction in much of the coursework elements, created unnecessary stress and concern for pupils and teachers alike."

Only two days ago, Childline in the UK released worrying figures that show more than 1,000 counselling sessions were provided to youngsters worried about their grades in the last year, a rise of more than a fifth (21 per cent) over the last two years. Peter Wanless, NSPCC chief executive, said: "waiting for exam results can be an anxious time for young people and can leave some struggling to cope. Pressure to achieve good grades and worries about securing further education places and jobs can be too much for some teenagers to deal with on their own.”

The curriculum changes made for this year's cohort mean the A level results will not be directly comparable to previous years. Nonetheless universities are expecting this year's students to achieve comparable grades to last year in order to secure their university places without fundamentally altering their expectations in light of the reforms.


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Rosamund McNeil notes that, “While results nationally may have remained in line with those in the previous year, some schools and colleges will no doubt see considerable variation . . . The volatility around results and the accountability measures which use them can have damaging and unfair consequences."

So as many students quite rightly celebrate their successes this year, other students will no doubt be unfairly caught up in the politics of educational reform. It is at times like this when schools and colleges both in the UK and internationally need to respond robustly on behalf of their students by contacting both examination boards, universities and OFQAL to let them know what the impact of their reforms have been for students this year and to contextualise their cohort's results in light of the reforms.

Experienced private schools have the money and the expertise to systematically appeal unfair examination results and to have those decisions overturned.  As such at this time of year it is incumbent upon schools to bring to bear the full weight of their collective bargaining power to ensure that students are duly rewarded for their two years of study at A Level and to access their chosen universities.


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Fiona Boulton, head of Guildford High School, one of the top performing girls schools in the UK, last month won an apology from Pearson, owner of the Edexcel examination board after nine of the school’s pupils saw papers originally marked as Cs and Ds rise to A*s. “I call on all schools ... to fight for justice for pupils [and to] challenge everything that is not right,” Boulton said. “They are making it harder and harder to challenge results but the quality of the marking is too variable. We know the system is flawed. These are pupils’ careers and lives in the balance.”

About 70,000 exam grades were changed last year, a statistic that should encourage schools and colleges worldwide to think strategically about examination marking this year in particular. Worryingly results of the OFQAL research suggest that “it seems to take roughly three years for students and teachers to become familiar with the nature and requirements of new assessments . . . Comparisons across cohorts in the early years of a new assessment should therefore be made carefully, to avoid drawing unfair conclusions about a cohort’s performance simply because it was one of the first groups of students to take the test.”

Knowing that matters may improve within three years will be of little consolation to this year’s cohort or next. Schools and students will need to act now to ensure that outcomes are fair.

Michael Lambert is headmaster of Dubai College

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