Our Complete Guide to Deciding Fair Student Grades in 2020

Author: Barnaby Grimble

Category 2020 Exam Grades

Ofqual have given more detailed guidance on what centres are going to need to submit for students of GCSE and A-Level courses. 

If you haven’t read the guidance from Ofqual yet, we would strongly advise you do.

They have stated that centres are to submit the following to exam boards:

  • A grade per student
  • A rank for each student that has the same grade within a centre

The deadline for submitting data to exam boards will be no earlier than 29th May and there will be a window of at least two weeks in which to submit the data.

Click here if you want to download our full guide to read later

To be clear, teachers are not submitting grades for their students; it is centres (department and schools) who are responsible for submitting grades. The DfE have gone to great lengths to emphasise that this is a shared process, so the accountability doesn’t fall down to individual teachers.

We are keen to support this by providing tools that help the transparency of grade and ranking recommendations, to support the conversations and decisions made by all involved.

Our focus is to help schools and departments to have confidence in the grades they are submitting.

Our trackers are already used by thousands of teachers, helping to provide an accurate picture of where their students are currently working at in order to inform their curriculum plans. They are flexible enough to be used with any approach that you wish to use. However, if you follow our guidance, the use of our system will provide an extremely robust method of ensuring high levels of accuracy when identifying the grade a student is currently working at.

Whether you choose to use our tracking system or not, this article may still give you ideas on refining your process.

We will discuss each recommended step briefly in this article, with links to additional, more detailed guidance for each step. Using our tracking system provides access to tools that will help you and your staff with each recommended step, helping to reduce workload and stress:

Step 1: Know the grade your students were working at (as of 20th March) based on your most valid current data

Step 2: Get teachers to add marks per unit to reflect the changes that would have been seen in the summer exams to produce a suggested grade

Step 3: Agree the finalised grade and verify any necessary adjustments

Step 4: Rank the students who are judged to have the same grade as a department for final submission

Step 5: Submit your grades and rankings to the exam board (To be added after the exact process is confirmed by the exam boards)

Our approach will:

  • Support teachers in using evidence to give an objective recommendation for students' grades and ranks 
  • Provide transparency around how a decision for a recommended grade has been reached
  • Reduce unconscious bias in recommending grades and ranks
  • Support the verification process by a subject and centre leader
  • Provide clarity for the Head of Centre in validating the recommended grades and ranks
  • Give confidence in a rigorous, systematic approach to ensure consistency, and most importantly fairness, both within and across subject areas
Covid 19 Pillar page 2 (No Text)

Click here to find out more about our free online tracking system to support  this whole process

Step 1: Where Were Your Students Working At In March 2020?

An obvious starting point in this process is to accurately identify the grade students were working at when schools closed on the 20th March.

Ofqual have advised “caution where that evidence suggests a change in performance” based on work completed after this date as “in many cases this is likely to reflect the circumstances and context in which the work is done.” (Ofqual, 3rd April 2020)

Ofqual have given a long list of evidence that can be (not “must be”) used to inform the centre submitted grade. This is to provide flexibility for situations where certain data or evidence is not available.

The key message not to overlook is to ensure that any bias or subjectivity is reduced, so centres must note:

 “It is important that the judgements are objective, and they should only take account of evidence about student performance.” (Ofqual, 3rd April 2020) [our emphasis]

Having clear, reliable data and evidence about the grade students were working at by 20th March will reduce the amount of subjectivity and risk or bias. It will support any discussions that will be had between teachers and subject leaders to justify the suggested Teacher Judgements.

Read More: Step 1 - What Grades Were Your Students Working At By 20th March?

Here is our advice to make your Current Working At Grade is as accurate as possible: 

  • Base it on the most valid data possible (mocks, internal assessments, NEA marks, marks from moderation that were imminent and cancelled)
  • If you don’t have mock data, use our Personalised Assessments tool to add marks for the most relevant and reliable evidence available instead (based on the acceptable evidence list from Ofqual)
  • Make sure your marks are weighted correctly for each unit (our tracking will do this for you)
  • Calculate Overall Total Marks based on the correct number of marks per unit
  • Calculate a Working at Grade using the Overall Total Marks. Ensure this calculation uses the most suitable boundaries (2019 Boundaries, from the very latest exam series, is advised)

Click here to find out more about our free online tracking system to support  this whole process


Step 2: Add Marks Per Unit, Don’t Simply Choose A Grade

Ofqual and the exam boards are expecting a grade to be submitted by the centre, based on the evidence, that teachers and leaders think a student would have achieved had the summer exams gone ahead as normal. To be clear, when we talk about a 'Teacher Judgment Grade', we are referring to a recommendation by a teacher that has to then be validated by subject leaders and the Head of Centre. 

Pupil Progress tracking systems calculate the grade exactly as the exam board you are using does. They are ready to use, making the whole process straight-forward for all teachers. Our recommended steps to arrive at a Teacher Judgement Grade (to be validated at a centre level) are:
  1. Use the Archive tool to take a snapshot of where they are currently at (March's Working at Grade) - this will be useful to come back to for validation
  2. Add raw marks to each unit, reflecting the extra marks the student would be likely to achieve - the overall grade is calculated for you from the overall total course mark
  3. Validate this grade using the Teacher Judgement Column in conversation with a subject leader / line manager

Adding marks at a unit level is more precise, and clearly takes into account the difference that could be made based on smaller parts of the course with specific criteria, skills or content. It also reduces the amount of subjectivity as it encourages the teacher to focus on a student’s performance within each unit. This will help the teacher to think of the student's skills in different parts of the course. This is especially important in courses where there is a practical unit and a written exam as it helps to distinguish where you think the student will get more marks.

Changing the unit marks will also help with the rankings as the Overall Total Mark can then be used to support ranking decisions (which we discuss below in Step 4).

In cohorts of 180 students you may have as many as 30 students on a Grade 5, and trying to make the ranking discussions working through 30 students will become very subjective and may involve many teachers if you are not careful. If you rank by the Overall Total Mark (having validated it) you will be able to rank by the number of marks. There will be fewer students on the same mark than there will be on the same grade, so instead your ranking conversation may be focused on about 3 or 4 students and may therefore only involve a couple of teachers. 

You can read more about using marks to decide grades by clicking the link below:

Read More: Step 2 - Taking the Pressure out of Recommending Student Grades


Step 3: Recommending And Validating A Grade

The validation process is going to be the most important step. If you get the Teacher Judgement Grades as accurate as they can be with the information you have available, the ranking takes care of itself. 

The DFE wants this to be a centre submitted grade: a collaborative decision to ensure the responsibility to provide and submit a ranked judgement grade does not fall to one single teacher. You can select the Teacher Judgement Grade on our trackers once the marks and Working At Grade have been validated.

Here is an example from our tracker for GCSE Drama for AQA:

Recommending a grade

In one-to-one conversations between the teacher and verifier (Subject Lead or SLT) you can check the judgements made at unit level are realistic and fair for each student. This is not just to check the thought process, but to provide consistency across all teachers in a department. The validated Teacher Judgement Grade can then be selected to show it has been discussed and agreed. 

Read More: Step 3 - A Collaborative Approach To Recommending And Validating  Grades

Ofqual have said they will be looking at “the prior attainment profile of students at centre level” and “results in previous years at individual centre level” (Ofqual, 3rd April 2020) to standardise marks. It is very difficult to avoid unconscious bias (after all, you are unconscious of it!), but it may be more evident in your overall cohort data.

Therefore we would recommend that the subject verifier also looks at the following in the discussion:

1. Check across the cohort that the Teacher Judgement Grade is broadly reflective of KS2 prior attainment. For example, a large number of low KS2 prior attainers all achieving grade 5+ may raise a warning signal to the exam boards that grades have been over-inflated. Our trackers display the KS2 prior attainment in the summary area for you to compare.

2. Check the percentage of students at and above each grade. Compare this with the percentages achieved in previous years to check it is broadly in line. Our reporting area has tables that present grade percentages based on your live data, so there are no further calculations for you to do.

3. Check for bias with particular groups using sub-group analysis. Are there groups of students that are lower than expected? Our Subgroup analysis allows you to quickly compare your Teacher Judgement Grades against the Working At Grade to see if there is any significant difference.

Read More: "Well, she deserves a 7!" - Reducing unconscious bias

We have been making updates to our platform over the last few weeks to make all of this possible and will be providing support videos to show you how you can do this very quickly without having to do any additional calculations.

Click here to find out more about our free online tracking system to support  this whole process

Step 4: Ranking Students

Ranking may be one of the more challenging stages of this process as it has the potential to be the most subjective and may depend on the advocacy individual teachers give their students. Having a clear process laid out for all staff involved will be essential, especially for departments with multiple Y11/ Y13 teachers.

Validation of the grades and Overall Total Marks should really be performed before any ranking meetings. This is to ensure the grades are correct before making ranking decisions, and that the Overall Total Marks are also reflective as this drives the ranking process. 

If you have made sure the Overall Total Marks are accurate in the validation stage, then the ranking should be a much more straightforward process. As teachers have added marks per unit, the overall total marks will now also be relative: the higher the Overall Total Marks, the higher the student will be in the grade rank. Using these starting rank positions for your conversation gives you another chance to ensure consistency across a department or across a class. It also means the conversation can focus on students with the same marks, so there should be less to discuss. 

Read More: Step 4 - Ranking Students Fairly And Objectively

Subjects with tiers (MFL, Science and Maths) will have the added challenge that students may have done different tiered tests so will need to be compared using data on different scales. This will add another challenge in keeping subjectivity to a minimum. Large cohorts will have the difficulty of trying to rank 20+ students all on the same grade involving many teachers. If you have followed our advice and used Overall Total Marks then this should focus the ranking conversations on just the 2 or 3 students with the same number of marks.

Using Overall Total Marks to support your ranking decisions will also improve the amount of objectivity and help to keep everyone focused on evidence-based decisions. This will also reduce the effect of bias, which we discuss in "Well, she deserves a 7" - Reducing unconscious bias.

We are adding a tool so you can download all your students with their Overall Total Marks, Working at Grade, Teacher Judgement Grade on one spreadsheet across all subjects. A starting rank will be awarded to each student based on the grade and overall total marks. This is to help you prepare for your ranking conversations. The ranking discussions may be quite a challenge, particularly in large departments. We have pulled together advice and tips from those who have to rank individuals objectively in our article Having an Effective Ranking Discussion.

Click here if you want to download our full guide to read later

Step 5: Submission And Other Considerations

Once you have got your centre verified grades and rankings organised, you can now await the exam boards guidance on uploading the info from the 29th May. 

With this whole process, the DfE  have made it extremely clear to all organisations that the most important consideration is that grade predictions and rankings “must reflect a fair, reasonable and carefully considered judgement of the most likely grade a student would have achieved if they had sat their exams this summer and completed any non-exam assessment." (Ofqual, 3rd April 2020). Ofqual, JCQ, ASCL and Ofsted have stated the grades awarded will not be used in performance tables and will not be used in performance management decisions to prevent any pressure being put on teachers or leaders to inflate grades. If they are, then there is a higher risk all the centre grades will be moderated down.

We are acutely aware of the pressure that is on teachers and centres, and that this whole process may be quite challenging for some. Teachers and leaders will feel a huge responsibility for the grades their students are being awarded and will want to make sure they are fair.

Throughout this process we also want to remind you that at no point are you “awarding” students grades. Teachers are suggesting a grade (Teacher Judgement) that is a reflection of the work that student has put in to date and is based on the evidence they have shown you to date. This is a collective responsibility as subject leaders, senior leaders and Heads of Centre will have to support and validate teacher suggestions. Grades submitted will then be standardised by the exam boards based on national distributions and the prior attainment of your centre or school. 

By ensuring the process is based on the best, most reliable evidence provided by the students performance, this will ensure that grades submitted will be a fair reflection of the level your students have been working at. It is the grade the student has demonstrated, not one you have given them. 

Click here to find out more about our free online tracking system to support  this whole process