A-level grades: we need to rethink the way we assess | Letters

It’s that time of year for a moral panic over examinations, assessments and claims of grade inflation (A-level data shows record grades and biggest gender gap in a decade, 10 August). Underlying this annual soul-searching is a fact that few of us involved in education, let alone politicians, are prepared to acknowledge. We need to recognise, not shamefacedly but honestly, the extent of our limited understanding of school learning. Despite a century or more of research and “measurement”, we still have no firm, reliable or systematic way of assessing young people’s understanding. Our examination technology is crude, partial, inadequate and discriminatory. The mental health of many former students bears witness to that.

The most we can reasonably claim is a largely intuitive and inevitably subjective form of assessment of learning borne out of working closely with our students over a period of time – talking with and observing them on a day-to-day basis. Hence the importance of teacher criteria-referenced assessment and the priority to make it even more effective. This may be uncomfortable to acknowledge, both for some teachers and for most politicians, but it is the reality. This year’s teacher assessed grades should be the start of a much-needed process of development, not an unwelcome interruption of a faulty measurement system which has passed its sell-by date.
Prof Colin Richards
Former HM inspector of schools

You do not need to be a genius to get good grades at A-level, but most young people need to work hard and be well taught. However, much of the debate about teacher-assessed A-level results assumes that only a minority should achieve a good or excellent A-level result. Surely that is a defeatist assumption?

It is possible that the traditional exam system has been doing young people and society a disservice by restricting good grades to a few “high flyers”. In other fields we have the expectation that all learners will achieve excellent levels of competence. None of us would want most airline pilots to be average or below average at their jobs!

Rather than thrashing around for quick fixes to restore the discredited status quo, in which only a few succeed in achieving high marks, policymakers should view the impact of the pandemic on secondary education as an opportunity for a more imaginative and creative rethink. Concentrating on the value and quality of education, rather than on grades and league tables, would be a good start.
Chris Mills
Kingsbridge, Devon

In all this hysteria over grade inflation, doesn’t it occur to anyone that these results might be more indicative of our young people’s true abilities? Teachers have an accurate knowledge of their students’ real capacities – much fairer than a one-off exam on one day of the year, when the student might not be on top form. Our students have worked so hard over the last 18 months and that commitment needs recognising – they don’t need to feel their results are not accurate, and teachers don’t need to be accused of unfairly inflating results.
Dinah Bardgett
Frome, Somerset

The press has deafened us with stories about A-level grade inflation, and the private/independent sector versus maintained schools. As usual we’ve indulged in well-worn stereotyping of boys and girls. Quite rightly, there has been concern about the impact of the government’s shaky response to the pandemic, resulting in lost learning for students. But nowhere is there any particularly searching analysis of the results of students on vocational courses. Shame on all of us. These young people will be the backbone of our economic recovery and as usual we overlook them.
Yvonne Williams
Ryde, Isle of Wight

Once again a shocking number of the highest grade medals have been awarded to our young athletes (Report, 9 August). I do understand our young people have been working hard under difficult circumstances, but Olympic standards are clearly slipping again this year.
David Cotter
Woodbridge, Suffolk

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