A Levels 2020: The Year of Utter Nonsense

Not seen this in any newspapers? Quite.

Have you forgotten the great 2020 A Level debacle now? You are meant to have done. They’ll be hoping it attracts no more attention, and with good reason, as we will see.

You will recall that the Government thought it a good idea to award A Level grades without the candidates taking the exams. A child of ten could have anticipated the uproar of dissatisfaction which would result. Ofqual chief regulator, Sally Collier, was obliged to resign after the inevitable gripes of tens of thousands of 18 year olds were successfully launched as an offensive weapon by opposition politicians.

She deserved to go, but not for quite the ostensible reason. She should have told the Government before they took this idiotic course that they could have either no exams and no A Levels this year, or, if they insisted on A Levels then they needed exams. Quite likely she would have been obliged to resign earlier by taking such a stance, as the Government would no doubt have insisted on having their Covid lockdown cake and eating it too in the form of A Level results. But she would then have left Ofqual as a person of integrity, instead of being complicit. Also, it is just possible that such resistance might have made the Government see sense.

Instead we had a week or two of blather about “algorithms”, this being spun as a wicked plot to defraud said 18 year olds of their just deserts. The media message was that the unscrupulous Tories had monkeyed about with teachers’ assessments, thus compromising what must surely be the most reliable assignment of grades.

Yeah, right. Because teachers’ assessments won’t inflate the top grades, or anything. Heaven forbid the very thought.

Well, the media did indeed prevent that very thought from surfacing. Meanwhile, some poor beleaguered folk, whose names we shall never know, were deploying the evil “algorithms” in a desperate attempt to make something vaguely credible out of the teachers’ assessments. But we couldn’t say that.

The initial A Level grades were thus awarded after the teachers’ assessments had been moderated by the “algorithm”, and these initial results were addressed in my earlier article, A Level Results 2020: The Examless Year. This showed that, statistically, candidates were not badly treated by these algorithmically modified grades. In fact, there was a clear tendency for awarding larger numbers of the highest grades (A*, A, B), and girls did a little better out of it than boys. Of course, that does not mean that every individual would be content; there would be winners and losers and I am no apologist for a process which is so very clearly inadvisable.

However, the Government were forced by political pressure, backed by widespread discontent, to reverse the decision to apply the algorithm. In this age of ceaseless tongue-biting, we were not permitted to observe that the algorithm was a necessary corrective for what was a staggeringly naïve reliance on teacher assessments. The problem was awarding grades based on teachers’ assessments, not the corrective algorithm. Nevertheless, the grades have now been recalculated using the teachers assessments uncorrected, and these final awards are the subject of this piece.

I’m afraid I will be offering no prizes for readers who guessed that using teachers’ assessments uncorrected would hugely inflate the top grades, and bias the results even more in favour of girls. I will offer you only quiet congratulations.

Figures 1 to 5, below, illustrate the point. These Figures relate to all subjects. In all these graphs there are two points for this year (2020). The first relates to the algorithm-adjusted awards first published, whereas the last point relates to the teachers’ assessments unadjusted, which now are the final awards. (All data taken from Brian Stubb’s site Student Performance Analysis).

Figure 1, which also heads this post, shows the number of grades A*, A or B awarded as a percentage of the total number of A Levels graded, plotted against year. The algorithm-adjusted point lies higher than the trend over the last decade, but by a relatively modest amount compared with the unadjusted teachers’ assessment which starkly betrays the utter nonsense of the final grades awarded.

The point is further driven home by Figures 2 to 5. Figures 2 and 3 plot the total number of grades A* and A respectively, showing how wildly unrepresentative of past results are the teachers’ assessments – in contrast to the algorithm-adjusted earlier data which appears to have been an attempt to make the outcome reasonable compared to previous years.

Figures 4 and 5 show the percentage of each sex assessed by teachers at grades A* and A respectively. The same discontinuous leap upwards is apparent.

Incidentally, Figure 4 shows a rare instance of boys doing better than girls in terms of the percentage (but not the number) gaining the top grade, A* – or, they did, until the teachers’ assessments took over. In the 2020 official results, as based on teachers’ assessments, a slightly greater percentage of girls now get the top grade.

Figure 6 indicates how boys have been clobbered by using unadjusted teachers’ assessments. This graph shows the difference between the number of A*, A or B grades awarded to girls and the number awarded to boys. Of course, there have been more girls than boys awarded top grades for many years (recall that there are 24% more girls taking A Levels). But Figure 6 shows how girls’ lead has been hugely inflated by using teachers’ assessments. The difference in top grades awarded had been around 50,000 to 60,000 over the last decade, but under the teachers’ assessment system it has leapt up to 78,000.

I’m not going to plough through all the individual subjects – far too much work – but here are a few indications. Figure 7 shows the percentage of each sex being awarded the A* grade in physics. In the preceding four years (2016 – 2019) this percentage was the same for boys and girls. But not when the teachers make the assessment, it isn’t. Like virtually every other subject, the percentage at grades A* and A have increased unrealistically under the teachers’ assessments, for both sexes – but more so for girls. So now a greater percentage of girls than boys have been awarded the A* grade in physics.

The greater increase in the percentage of girls, than of boys, being awarded top grades combines with the greater number of girls as A Level candidates to make girls even more dominant in absolute numbers of top grades awarded, as Figure 6 illustrates.

This can also be seen in individual subjects. Tables 1 and 2 show the total number of awards at grades A or A* by sex for biology and English literature. The salient point here is by how much the difference between the top grades awarded to girls and boys has increased between 2019 and 2020 due simply to the use of teachers’ assessments. These examples illustrate that there can be several thousand additional girls relative to boys awarded top grades in each subject, simply due to using teachers’ assessments.

That teachers’ assessments are biased in favour of girls should come as no surprise. I have been pointing it out for years, as have many authors (see here and here or chapter 2 of my book).  

I do not know which set of A Level results universities have used to decide upon their entrance acceptances. (Perhaps a reader can enlighten me). But if the final set based on teachers’ assessments have been used, we can expect the dominance of women over men as undergraduates to surge past its current 37% in this year’s intake. And this will be concentrated at the better universities where A and A* grades are required, as it is here that the numbers of women have been greatly inflated.

Biologyboysgirlsgirls – boys
2020 teacher assessment8316160947778
2020 algorithm moderated5707108745167
2019 exam5820108895069
Table 1: Numbers of A/A* grades awarded in Biology by sex
English Literatureboysgirlsgirls – boys
2020 teacher assessment3253123549101
2020 algorithm moderated222182886067
2019 exam213376965563
Table 2: Numbers of A/A* grades awarded in English Literature by sex
Figure 1
Figure 2
Figure 3
Figure 4
Figure 5
Figure 6
Figure 7

8 thoughts on “A Levels 2020: The Year of Utter Nonsense

  1. John

    Your reference to figure 6 needs to be changed to a reference to figure 5. Why do you have two data points on the right side of each of your graphs? I would love to show this article to educators once corrected.

  2. Angelo Agathangelou

    Thanks for the excellent work. …Our entire government and civil service structure are sadly all utter nonsense, because the foundation supposed to underpin them has crumbled to dust. Too many laws, it crumbles under its own weight.

    …It is said that Lady Justice is the traditional symbol of our judicial systems and that her attributes include a blindfold, to represent impartiality and a total absence of bias; a balance, to represent the weighing of the evidence as the only source of a decision of guilt or innocence; and a sword, to represent the authority of the court and the swiftness of the meting out of justice.

    I charge any man who’s had experience with any ‘Family Court’ judge to put that judge [in the family courts of Bristol city, UK that will invariably mean more than one, perhaps more than ten different judges for one case] to the test as a representative of Lady Justice.

    Duration in and of itself damns them all, …her sward is broken. Their misandric gynocentrism, …her blind fold is removed. They treat hearsay from females as fact and physical evidence submitted by males as contagious and to be overlooked/avoided at all costs, …her balance is nowhere to be seen.

    For those lucky enough to have avoided family court, or any other judges, kudos, but I’m sure you too can identify our corrupted judicial system by following the Assange show trial. There’s an example of swift unbiased justice. All our nursery rhymes and the very foundation of Britain are consumed by the funeral pyre that is the British Justice system.

    Until we overhaul our justice system you’re going to have your work cut out for you with Black Swan and other types of statistical examples of our crumbling nation. …Best wishes

    P.S. Let’s castrate judges and re-empower juries [including for family matters], archive our current law libraries as curiosities and examples of folly and instead institute only two laws, [a] Protect the individual and [b] Protect the individual’s ‘fair’ property.

    [i] all other laws are a con.
    [ii] law becomes accessible to the overwhelming majority and protects the incapable.
    [iii] lawyers become defunct.
    [iv] judges, become arbitrating supervisors.
    [v] people [jurors] become the only judges.

    The current judicial system is not only broken, it is incomprehensible, it is not only not fit for purpose, it is actively rotting our nation from within and creating your findings.

  3. AJ

    The best course would have been to hold exams. An examination hall in which distance is already mandatory would seem one of the easiest locations to ensure distancing. Volunteers invigilators could have been recruited to replace those teachers unwilling or unable to supervise. It would be expected that results would have been sharply depressed and that those worst effected would be poor white boys. However at least the results would be independant and credible.

    If this could not be done then no A_levels should have been awarded but instead a certificate of participation and the opportunity to take an A-level exam in the future provided.

    Any award without exams would inevitably involve a great deal of injustice. Large numbers of disappointing results were never going to be accepted unless they were based on an impartial assessments of each candidate.

    As could be expected basing the results on teachers assessment has resulted in massive grade inflation and that has benefitted girls more than boys but I would highlight two things.

    The first is that amongst those who receive higher than deserved awards there will be some who receive lower than deserved and that these will mostly be boys. In the 70’s I achieved 4 grade A-levels and passed thd Cambridge entrance exams from a comprehensive school with no special tuition. However my Maths teacher’s predicted grade was a U. This is extreme and may not have occured if the consequences of the prediction were as great as this year. However I have a colleagues whose son receivbed disappointiong grades far worse than average at his school despite always coming close to the top in his schoole exams. He has a hostory of bad relations with some of his teachers. The school is refusing to provide records of his assessments and his standing within the class and comparative A-level result predictions. These people are doubly victims receiving lower than fair grades against a background of increased grades.

    The second is that the massive grade inflation will cause enormous problems throughout the university systems with far more candidates achieving offered grades than had been planned for based on previous results. HIgher level instituitions will be forced to accept far too many students and lower grade instituitions will receive far fewer than expected both will suffer as will the students. As with Covid19 more generally the negative consequences of the measures taken will extend for years beyond the pandemic itself. Higher education instituitions will be permenantly damaged. School qualifications will be permenantly devalued. The pressure for a further erosion in degree standards will increase.

  4. Michael Porter

    My own layman’s take on this is that it is (of course) yet another example of the continuing process of the destabilisation, weakening and undermining of society’s fabric as part of a slow motion power grab designed to engineer kakistokracy…

  5. Mike Bell

    What is so laughable is that most teachers know only too well that teacher-assessed grades are very unreliable.
    The exam boards ask for them only to use in their algorithm (used every year) to highlight any huge difference between the predicted grade and the actual marked – grade. They then remark those papers to check it wasn’t a marking error.
    Any head will be able to tell you the difference between their predictions and reality.
    The way the teaching profession jumped on the media ‘It’s not fair’ bandwagon is unprofessional.

  6. Nick Langford

    Teachers of my acquaintance (I work in education) seem to think the revised grades are satisfactory – they would; they match their predictions. However, it seems to me that the revision does students a great disservice, and employers will surely regard 2020 A Levels as worthless in assessing the merits of a job applicant.

    1. William Collins Post author

      Such teachers cannot have looked at the stats – just a glance is enough. The inflation shows up in every subject, even when just looking at tables of numbers rather than graphs. It will be interesting to see what happens next year (assuming there are exams again then) as students moan they have been harshly treated compared to the 2020 cohort.


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