• Wednesday, Dec 08, 2021
  • Last Update : 02:13 pm

Why is there anger over A-level results?

  • Published at 09:32 pm August 17th, 2020
a level exam
Photo: Collected

Students complain that the predicted grades awarded by Cambridge are riddled with discrepancies

'Moderated’ grading at this year’s A-level results has caused an outcry, as students in Bangladesh and elsewhere have had their results downgraded by the exam regulator.

Outrage over the results have also caused students in England to protest, after thousands of students had their results downgraded by the regulator’s algorithm, and the appeal process was abruptly changed later. 

In the wake of the global coronavirus outbreak, Cambridge International and Pearson Edexcel, the two awarding bodies for O and A-level qualifications, decided to cancel the June 2020 exams, creating instead a system for awarding predicted grades to students. 

Under this process, Cambridge International requires schools to determine a predicted grade for each candidate for each syllabus entered. 

Each school then creates what is called a ‘rank order,’ where teachers predict grades for their students and rank students within each letter grades. 

The heads of the institutions then review and approve predicted grades and rank order, before sending them to Cambridge International. 

Cambridge carries out a standardisation process, combining data from the school with other data, before awarding the final grades.

To arrive at the final results, Cambridge looks at “statistical evidence,” such as the performance of the school in previous years, the grade bell curve data, etc. 

This may have created discrepancies in ‘unusual cases,’ says GM Nizam Uddin, Secretary General of Bangladesh English Medium Schools Association (BEMSA). 

“For example, let’s say candidates in my school are all capable of getting A*. But in previous years, students got lesser grades overall. So, this will affect the current students, because they are unusual cases, relative to the previous results of this school,” according to Nizam Uddin. 

Nizam Uddin thinks that Cambridge may also have evaluated more strictly than usual to eliminate bias. 

“Cambridge didn’t look at individual student data. It is unlikely that a century-old and widely accepted organization like Cambridge will on purpose produce results that are unfair,” notes Nizam Uddin. 

But not looking at individual students has apparently caused “ridiculously different” results for  Ahnaf Mashrur, whose grades differed by as much as 45% compared to the previous year. 

A student of Scholastica school in Dhaka, Mashrur got an A (85%) in Economics and a B (70%) in Business Studies last year. But he was baffled to find that he had been awarded an E in Economics (over 40%) and a D (over 50%) in Business Studies in predicted grading. 

Mashrur thinks the grading process involving rank order and predicting from statistical data are flawed. He said Cambridge did not take the predicted grades provided by the teachers into account, as it had promised. 

“The matrix upon which they graded me was rather stupid since they didn’t consider outliers. My predicted grades were Bs (above 70%) in each of the aforementioned subjects,” he said. 

“In their statement, they said they’d be taking the predicted grades into account, but it’s evident that they did not. What they did do is apply a strange set of rules. They observed the grades that came from each centre (school) for the past 3 years and made an average. For example, they assumed each year my school, Scholastica in Mirpur, would produce a certain quota of A*s and As and they used a ranking order system to award each student their grades.” 

The results will prevent Mashrur from applying to public universities since they require a minimum of 2Cs to be able to sit for the admissions tests. He will also be excluded in admissions in most private universities, he said, as those have higher grade-thresholds as well.

Downgrading has been more severe for some students who ended up getting a U, which is the grade for under 40% and typically constitutes failure. 

Muntakim Masrur Siddiqui got a U in physics while his AS physics grade was a B. 

In some cases, discrepancy seems to have occurred in reverse. Ahnaf Nafim Shiraj, an AS student, admits that he got a higher grade than expected in chemistry. In physics and mathematics, however, he got a B and a C respectively, while he believes he should have been awarded As in both the subjects. 

Nabila, who got 2 As in her AS but a B and C in the predicted grading, says it is “illogical” for the exam authority to decrease marks given that she did not sit for exams. 

“Since we didn't give exams, the best and most logical method of awarding grades would have been giving us our AS grades. Usually, students get higher in A2 than AS, so downgrading us is even more unfair,” she said. 

The appeal process does not allow individual students to have their grades reviewed. Instead, Cambridge requires schools to make appeals for any possible amendments in the results. 

However, aggrieved students think this is inadequate. “There’s a risk for the people who were lucky enough to be awarded the grades they deserved to be downgraded. I wouldn’t want that to happen to one of my friends so that I can get my grades justly; it’s not fair,” said Ahnaf Mashrur. 

Some expressed anger about having to spend their examination fees and getting grades that they think do not reflect their abilities accurately. 

“We had to pay a significant amount of registration fees for each unit. This wasn't even refunded as the board decided to go for predicted grades. This seems like both our money and energy have been wasted for a result which was not even satisfactory,” Paromita Piya, an A2 candidate studying at Mastermind School, said. 

It is not clear as yet if Cambridge will amend its rules for appeal in light of the complaints. BEMSA Secretary General Nizam Uddin is of the opinion that Cambridge might open avenues for amending individual results if it receives credible feedback with appropriate evidence. 

Cambridge International, in the media statement released with the results on August 11, said that the results had been prepared following a “rigorous standardisation process,” which “ensured grades issued for June 2020 would be fair and reliable and accepted by universities and employers globally, in the same way as any other year.” 

In a later statement on August 14, it said that schools have been pleased that Cambridge was able to provide grades in challenging circumstances, but also  acknowledged that there have been concerns with its process. 

“We have been looking carefully at how to act on your feedback, and at the same time make sure schools, universities and employers continue to trust our qualifications,” the statement read. It noted that Cambridge would inform the schools on its next course of action in light of these “concerns” on August 18. 

Cambridge Assessment International Education, as the qualification provider is formally known, did not specify which concerns it will address. 

Additional reporting by Sabrina Fatma Ahmad

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