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Chaos and A U-Turn: The UK’s A-Level Catastrophe

by Alp Ünal AYHAN

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, exams needed for UK students to get into universities known as A-Levels were canceled leaving grades to be decided by a mix of factors including grades of previous assignments, results of mock exams, teacher predictions of pupils’ grades, and an algorithm. Students not satisfied with their results will be able to take alternative exams in fall.


This development made pupils, teachers, and parents nervous as teachers did not want to be put in a position to grade and rank their own students, and students themselves did not want to be evaluated on the work they produced they did not think would contribute to their final grade.


The algorithm the UK’s Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual), the exams watchdog, used two key pieces of information to determine grades: teachers’ ranking of students and schools’ historical performance (1). Many feared this would put students studying at underperforming schools at a disadvantage, who are more likely to be poor and more likely to belong to a BAME (Black, Asian, and minority ethnic) community.


Their fears came true. Results day created an enormous amount of controversy, heartbreak and fear over students’ futures. Almost 40% of all students taking A-Levels had their grades dropped from their teachers’ evaluations (2). Chaos erupted soon with students taking to the streets, chanting “[EXPLETIVE] the algorithm” and demanding Ofqual follow Scotland’s lead and grade students purely on teacher evaluations.


The government stood by their decision at first. Citing the record percentage of A* and A grades -the highest two possible- issued at 29.9%, government officials boasted their system for being fair and robust (3).


After days of chaos and confusion, in mid-August, the government took a U-turn and announced A-Level results would only be based on teacher evaluations unless in cases the algorithm awarded students higher grades. Students will still be able to take alternative exams. Ofqual’s chair said, "I am sorry for the distress this has caused young people and their parents but hope this announcement will now provide the certainty and reassurance they deserve.”

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