What will this year’s GCSE and A Level results tell us about the cohorts of 2020?

by Tim Oates, 16 July 2020
school students walking through corridor

More than a million students will receive GCSE and A Level grades this summer, but in a far from normal way. So very many things will be different: the way the results arrive, the way they have been determined, the way success is celebrated, and the focus we should have on supporting young people in progression to the next stage of their education and training.

It’s difficult to know how this cohort will react to receiving grades based on teacher judgment and exam board standardisation rather than as a result of their performance in exams. In many ways their range of emotional responses is likely to be similar to those of previous classes – some will be delighted, others disappointed, and the vast majority generally content.

Emotional rollercoaster

Parents and guardians often feel they are on the same emotional rollercoaster, but their response this August will be more important than ever. Those who are supporting children who are disappointed with their results will undoubtedly question how the grades have been reached and how this will affect their future. They may well ask if and why the final awards determined by exam boards are different from the grades submitted by teachers. But they could equally ask how their results might have differed had they sat their exams.

'What might have been' is not what we should be focusing on

These different forms of variation will play on peoples’ minds – we know that from the press stories so far. But ‘what might have been’ is not what we should be focussing on. Rather, we need to focus on getting each young person onto the right track – into sixth form, or college, or university, or enterprise.

In such uncertain times, where disruption has reached down so deeply into so many things, grades are on track to be determined on time, using a standard approach, underpinned by research, applied consistently by exam boards, and overseen by Ofqual. At all stages, researchers have modelled how the process is operating, so we know its limitations and strengths. And already we are guiding centres in checking the processes they have followed to ensure that any errors in the millions of records and pieces of data used in the process are identified.

Overall, the process relies on the judgements of teachers and is the fairest possible in the circumstances

Importance of rank orders

At the heart of this year’s results is the rank order of students determined by teachers. When the results are issued, this rank order will be preserved. What may change are the grades teachers submitted to exam boards for each pupil in each subject. Not all will change but we know that some will, since we are standardising the submissions from schools – a process essential for linking this year’s results to established standards in GCSE and A Level qualifications.

This national process has used each individual centre’s historical results and prior attainment of its pupils to determine whether the Centre Assessment Grades were more generous or severe than predicted. Overall, the process relies on the judgements of teachers and is the fairest possible in the circumstances

We need a good dose of understanding and deliberate and careful sensitivity in admissions and decision-making processes in respect of sixth-form entry, HE entry and the labour market

What it could never capture, though, are those pupils who might have turned in a surprising performance, flourishing in the last few months and shining in the exam itself. Nor could it reflect those who might have calmly worked meticulously through the questions and picked up the five extra marks needed to get a grade higher than the one they would otherwise have got. In the past, others would have chosen the wrong questions, and had a stressful and disappointing day compared to their teachers’ expectations. Others still would have been diligent and conscientious but just dropped below a grade boundary, as happens every year. 

Understanding and sensitivity

Given these variations between this year and a ‘normal’ year, it is harder for those who rely on these results to be as certain as they might have been about the ability of every student this summer. That means we need a good dose of understanding and deliberate and careful sensitivity in admissions and decision-making processes in respect of sixth-form entry, HE entry and the labour market.

We should make sure that this year’s exam cohorts are protected and supported through the journey to their next destinations in education, training and employment

So come results days, we need there to be a focus on next steps in life for each and every pupil, rather than a focus on the differences between the grades awarded and what teachers may have submitted.

Progression is most important

Progression is the thing which will affect life chances and personal histories, not one set of exam results. We should make sure that this year’s exam cohorts are protected and supported through the journey to their next destinations in education, training and employment – that admissions and selection processes are operated in ways which attend to the wishes and needs of each individual, looking at the person as well as their grades, and making sure that we get each and every pupil swiftly onto their next life path.

Tim Oates CBE, Director of Assessment Research and Development, Cambridge Assessment

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