Cambridge International decided to ignore AS results and teacher predictions in awarding A-Level grades. The most influential examination board in the international sector have shirked their responsibilities and left schools, UCAS and University Admissions Officers to sort out the mess. Despite assurances to the contrary, it appears that the cohort of students arguably most affected by the global pandemic has been thrown under the bus. School closures have deeply challenged their mental health and emotional wellbeing, and the examinations debacle adds to their distress.
Despite assurances, Cambridge has not taken into account AS results achieved by students at the end of Year 12 (not to mention the percentage breakdown.) This is unfair to students whose AS scores are good or outstanding as they have been systematically “graded” based upon a hastily contrived, and fundamentally flawed, algorithm. In most cases, these students have been downgraded by Cambridge and have not received the grades they expected or deserved. It’s unbelievable that CAIE ignored prior attainment at AS. I appreciate that they faced challenges in assigning A2 grades but missing the verified data from AS seems ludicrous. Given that they are a private and autonomous company makes the whole situation more unfathomable, as they were immune from external political pressure from any government. They have ignored their vision for education in ignoring the human dimension to the awarding of grades. They dehumanised their processes by ignoring teachers predicted grades and not considering the impact their algorithm would have on students. I am afraid they have lost an enormous amount of credibility with schools in the international sector.
Equally galling is Cambridge’s blatant disregard for teacher predicted grades and the evidence that they collated to support their assessment. This not only demonstrates a lack of faith in teacher’s professionalism but also present an uncaring attitude towards Cambridge teachers (not to mention their students!) Teachers spent hour upon hour collating evidence to support their judgements, but Cambridge almost wholly ignored this work. Whilst dealing with school closures, online learning, and schools reopening in the Chinese scenario, teachers worked day and night to find evidence to support their judgements. Cambridge showed a complete disregard for teacher wellbeing but adding to their workload and stress levels, only to overlook this entire dimension of the process. Their conduct is unethical and unjust.
The context of the proliferation of international schools in China seems to have been largely overlooked by CAIE in awarding grades. The numbers of candidates entered by schools may fluctuate dramatically as schools assert their place in the sector. Moreover, the academic quality of students varies from year to year. Most schools are relative newcomers to the sector, and their historical data is not reliable as an indicator of the performance of a future cohort of students. In many cases, schools were entering students for A-Levels for the first time, and 100’s of schools across the country would not have three years of historical data for Cambridge to draw upon. Despite this fact, Cambridge did not amend their algorithm to make allowances for new schools, and as a result, downgraded 10,000’s of grades based upon AS results and teacher predictions. The use of historical data has proved hugely controversial in England and Wales, where schools are long-established and usually have large cohorts of students, with criticism of the government and OFQUAL coming from students, parents and teachers. Still, it is even more exasperating that Cambridge deployed a similar strategy in the international context. Using a (deeply flawed) system designed for British schools in the international context is nothing short of ridiculous.
The system of determining results has led to an unintentional bias against students in some parts of the world more than others. The application of global standards ignores the advantages that Chinese students have, in particular in Mathematics and Physics, due to the exceptional standard of teaching that they have encountered in these subjects since early childhood. In China, thousands of Maths and Physics students have had their results downgraded – it would appear to match global data, without regard for the local setting. It is not a stereotype that these students excel in these subjects; the data reinforces the fact. Even more ironic is the fact that Chinese students were back in school since March in many cases and could have sat their A-Level examinations without risk. Now they have to contend with potentially missing out on University places because examination boards saw fit to cancel all exams across the world – as ever one size fits all solutions are rarely effective.
In any other year, parents, students and schools would have the right to appeal grades awarded to individual students. Individual students have been denied the right to appeal, and the only way for schools to appeal against grades is to appeal the grades of an entire cohort of students in a particular subject. This causes an ethical dilemma for schools who may wish to appeal against grades that were downgraded but don’t want to risk the grades of students which they believe to be correct. The autonomy of the individual student has effectively been removed. They are no longer deemed to be a human being with alienable rights but are seen as part of a wider group of people. Schools are caught between the devil and the deep blue sea when it comes to deciding whether or not to appeal against the grades that have been awarded.
I have been a long time champion of Cambridge International. I have been deeply impressed by recent developments at the company and their movement towards being more than just an examination board. In many respects, I hold Cambridge in higher esteem than the IB, given the greater flexibility of their programmes, and their commitment to global education, rather than just elite international schools. This is a watershed moment for Cambridge. Decisions that they make over the coming weeks will shape their reputation as an international exam board. They are not the only exam board to have dropped the ball, but they are in a position to make amends. If Cambridge were to withdraw the grades that they have awarded and aware A-Level grades based upon AS results and the predicted grades of teachers, they would effectively redeem their reputation. I recognise that some international schools use the linear model of A-Level entry, and in these cases, Cambridge could utilise teacher predictions, and draw upon samples of the students work that teachers diligently collected over the last few months. This might not be ideal for students who miss out on university places because of the grading debacle, but it would at least ensure a just end to the crisis.