Exam standards and the pandemic – what’s next?

by Nicky Rushton, Lucy Chambers & Emma Walland, 01 October 2021
The legs of students walking forwards along a corridor

The last year and a half have seen enormous changes for education in England. Many students have spent substantial proportions of time learning remotely, and exams were unable to go ahead in both 2020 and 2021. With large proportions of the population now vaccinated, we hope that the 2021-22 school year will see less disruption, but the impact of the pandemic on education and assessment will continue to be felt for many years to come.

What do we know about 2022?

At the time of writing, we assume that there will be GCSE and A Level assessments in the summer of 2022. Ofqual is consulting about changes to the assessments to support students, which could include adjustments such as a choice of topics, providing advance information, allowing formulae sheets in exams and changing the requirements for practical work.

However, the question remains as to what will happen with standards in the future.

How have standards changed?

Prior to the pandemic, statistical predictions supported by expert judgement helped to maintain standards and prevent undue grade inflation. During the pandemic the emphasis shifted away from maintaining standards to enabling this group of students, who experienced extreme disruption, to progress (2). The emphasis on students not missing out on future opportunities resulted in more higher grades being awarded than in previous years.

There were also differences in how grades were decided in 2020 and 2021, so we cannot be certain that the grades from both years mean exactly the same. They both focus on students’ potential to succeed and progress(1), although we cannot be sure that two students with the same grades have covered the same amount of content or are able to demonstrate the same level of skills.

This leaves us questioning what will happen in future years ⁠— will the standards return to pre-Covid ones?

Challenges for standard setting in future

Standard setting is a complex process, which in pre-Covid times, relied in part on statistical predictions. This may pose a challenge for standard setting in future years, and it is likely that a new system will need to be developed. For example, GCSE attainment is usually used as the prior attainment data for A Levels. As there were no GCSE exams in 2020 or 2021, this information may not be as comparable with the previous years for A Level standard setting in 2022 or 2023.

There is a similar challenge to be overcome for GCSEs, which use the data from the year 6 national curriculum assessments. The assessments were cancelled in 2020 and 2021 and were not replaced by teacher assessment. This means that there won’t be any prior attainment data for awarding GCSEs in 2025 and 2026(2).

Finally, another related challenge is that some of the GCSEs and A Levels have only been assessed once since they underwent reform. That means that there is not an established standard to refer back to, and pre-reform standards would have to be used.

The bottom line

The pandemic has created many challenges for education and assessment(3), and one such challenge relates to maintaining standards. During this difficult time, the focus has been on ensuring our students can progress to the next phases of their lives. The effect of the pandemic is likely to continue for several years, and we may need to be innovative in designing new systems and methods for resetting the standards and maintaining them in the future.


1↩ Attitudes to fair assessment in the light of COVID-19, Research Matters 31, Cambridge Assessment, 2021

2↩ Generation Covid and the impact of lockdown, Research Matters 31, Cambridge Assessment, 2021.

3↩ Research Matters 31, Cambridge Assessment, 2021

Before you go... Did you find this article on Twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook? Remember to go back and share it with your friends and colleagues!

Related blogs

Key bloggers

Tim Oates Blogger
Tim Oates

Director of Assessment and Research

Research Matters

Research Matters 32 promo image

Research Matters is our free biannual publication which allows us to share our assessment research, in a range of fields, with the wider assessment community.