Confusion as UK tweaks key exam grade rules amid pandemic

LONDON (AP) — Students and teachers in Britain have been left bewildered and upset after officials announced last-minute changes to how crucial school-leaving grades are awarded, following widespread disruption to education already caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Thousands of teenage students had their exams – known as A-Levels and GCSEs – cancelled earlier this year because the pandemic forced extended school closures. The grades are key in many college and job applications.

Students are due to receive teachers’ predicted grades Thursday in the absence of actual exam grades. But Education Secretary Gavin Williamson sowed confusion when he announced late Tuesday that students can use their results in practice exams taken before schools closed in March to appeal, if they are unhappy with the predicted grades.

Students will also have the option of re-taking exams in the autumn.

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Nick Gibb, Britain’s schools minister, said the move was designed as a “safety net” to ensure that no students were disadvantaged by the system for assessing grades. He told Sky News that “most young people tomorrow will get the grade that the teacher sent in to the exam board that they thought they would get.”

But universities complained they are unclear how the appeals process will work, and Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said the last-minute changes caused “widespread chaos.”

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the teaching union Association of School and College Leaders, said the plan creates potential for “massive inconsistency” because practice exams are not standardized and can vary hugely in how they are administered. Many students wouldn’t even have taken practice exams before schools closed in March.

The change follows widespread confusion in Scotland, where officials have had to scrap a system of “moderated” grades after complaints that it discriminated against students from deprived backgrounds.

Critics say that system is unfair because it linked students’ ability with their schools’ past performances, and a bright student in a low-performing school could be disadvantaged. Scottish officials have apologized and say results will now be based on grades estimated by teachers.

The disruptions and debates about fairness are similar to what teenagers in other parts of Europe have experienced.

In France, where taking the final Baccalaureat exam is major rite of passage, this year students were given diplomas based on grades throughout their final year instead.

Results released in July showed that a record 91% of 740,000 final-year high school students passed the exam, known as “le Bac,” compared to 77% the year before. The high success rate prompted jokes about how this year’s graduates got off easy, but also real concern among the graduating class that their diplomas will always be seen as sub-par.

Examiners reviewed the students’ grades before schools closed in mid-March, as well as an assessment from teachers of how the students performed the rest of the year, when the schools remained closed and teaching was only online.

Some critics say this penalized the most marginalized students, because they had limited or no access to online devices or a place to study during lockdown.

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Angela Charlton in Paris contributed to this story.

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