Northern Ireland news

Exam students ‘will not be disadvantaged' by Covid disruption

Representatives from Northern Ireland’s exam regulator CCEA, said algorithms would not be used in assessing grades when GCSE and A-level exams return
Jonathan McCambridge, PA

Everything will be done to ensure that students sitting exams this summer will not be disadvantaged due to the disruption caused by the Covid pandemic, exam chiefs have said.

Giving evidence to the Stormont Education Committee, representatives from Northern Ireland’s exam regulator CCEA, said algorithms would not be used in assessing grades when GCSE and A-level exams return.

Instead, they said that examiner judgment would be at the core of the marking process and students will have an option of sitting fewer exams.

Northern Ireland has faced two years of exams disruption due to the pandemic.

In 2020 there was an outcry from many schools, pupils and parents when a statistical algorithm used to standardise results reduced more than a third of A-level grades predicted by teachers in 2020.

After days of controversy, former Education Minister Peter Weir scrapped the standardisation model and announced that pupils would be able to receive the grades predicted by teachers, even though it saw results averages soar.

Last year, students received teacher-assessed grades after the exams were again cancelled.

Since then, current Education Minister Michelle McIlveen has announced that written exams would resume in this academic year.

Tommy O’Reilly, chairman of CCEA, told the committee: “For many students this year may be their first experience of external examinations.

“Students will have the option to omit one assessment unit selected by CCEA for the majority of GGSE, AS and A-level qualifications, providing students with an option to reduce the number of examinations and assessments they must all sit.

“We have also reduced the coursework and controlled assessment requirements for several subjects.”

He added: “We will be mindful of the effect of the pandemic on students and the ongoing disruption to learning and teaching and we share the wishes of regulators in England and Wales that outcomes in 2022 are higher than those in 2019.

“The judgments of examiners will play a significant part in the awarding process. As a measure of further assurance that students are not being disadvantaged, we will insure that examiner judgment is at the centre of the awarding process and takes account of the significant disruption that young people have encountered.

“The majority of CCEA’s examiners are active or recently retired teachers so fully understand the challenges that students will have faced.”

Committee vice-chair Pat Sheehan said: “The big fear is that students who are awarded grades this year will be in some way disadvantaged compared to grades that were given out pre-pandemic.”

CCEA interim chief executive Margaret Farragher said: “We have got lots of arrangements in place this year to support learners who have had a difficult two-year period.

“We have got the optional unit omissions arrangement which reduces the number of examinations students have to take this summer.

“The approach this year will be to ensure that (for) students who have had a difficult time through the Covid disruption, everything will be done to ensure that their grade outcomes are positive and they are not disadvantaged.”

SDLP MLA Daniel McCrossan said: “There remains significant gaps in your provision, while your mitigations have been universally applied to all our young people, some schools and children have been more adversely affected by Covid than others.

Ms Farragher said: “There was an agreement that having units omission into the system, if particular schools are facing disruption, they can take advantage of the units omissions.

Mr McCrossan asked: “Will CCEA be using algorithms in determining final grades this year?”

CCEA temporary director of examinations Amanda Swann said: “This year, as in every normal year, examiner judgment is at the core of the process.

“Examiner judgment will continue to be the driver for where grade boundaries are set and, therefore, what outcomes are.

“Each examiner has to complete four separate training sessions with us this year to make sure they are in the right space to understand the level of disruption for candidates and to make sure they are looking at students in the context of disrupted learning.”

Mr McCrossan said: “So will algorithms be used?”

Ms Swann replied: “No they won’t.”

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