Ofqual ‘chose to carry on’ despite algorithm concerns, MP says

England’s exam regulator “chose to carry on” despite concerns over a controversial algorithm used to calculate grades this year, the education select committee has said.

Ofqual pushed ahead with the system despite having “serious doubts”, committee chair Robert Halfon said in a letter about this year’s grading fiasco.

After exams were cancelled due to coronavirus, it was decided calculated grades would be given to students, with teacher-predicted marks going through a standardisation process.

Outcry followed A-level results day in England, after it emerged thousands of grades had been downgraded in moderation, while others were unhappy with their estimated marks.

A government U-turn allowed students to take their teacher grades, if higher than calculated ones, amid the backlash.

“Ofqual did have serious doubts about being able to deliver a system which would be fair to individual students,” Mr Halfon said in a letter to Gavin Williamson, the UK education secretary, this week.

The Education Select Committee found England’s exam regulator was aware the algorithm would pose problems for high-achieving students in historically low-attaining schools, and would benefit smaller schools.

“They recognised this problem but simply accepted that they could not find a solution to it and chose to carry on,” Mr Halfon said.

Speaking to the committee in September, Ofqual’s chair said they had warned scrapping exams and using calculated grades was the “worst-case scenario” — and had suggested socially-distanced or delayed exams instead.

The government said calculated grades would be used, after exams were cancelled due to coronavirus.

Mr Halfon questioned Ofqual’s independence as a regulator as he said the watchdog had failed to raise alarm bells about the grading system before the chaos.

Ofqual “simply followed the ministerial direction and hoped for the best”, the Tory MP added.

In his letter, the education select committee chair looked forwards to 2021 summer exams, which the government has said will go ahead in England with a delay of several weeks, to allow for more teaching time amid disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

He called for “robust contingency plans” to be put in place as soon as possible, to make sure the exams can take place. 

A DfE spokesperson said: “All decisions taken this year were based on delivering the fairest outcome for students. At all times the department worked closely with Ofqual to find solutions that would allow young people to progress to the next stage of their education or career.

They added: “We have full confidence in Ofqual as an independent regulator and it is right we continue to work closely with them, reflecting on 2020 and ensuring next summer’s exams are as fair as possible for young people, taking into account the disruption students may have experienced.”

Additional reporting by Press Association

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