The former head of Ofqual has said a “gross miscalculation” over what is an “acceptable way to treat people” was behind last year’s fiasco over exam grades.
Roger Taylor, who led England’s exam regulator during the first set of exam cancellations, said there was a widespread “colossal misjudgement” over how to work out grades when the normal system fell apart.
Under the original grading system set up last year, teachers predicted what marks students would have achieved in an exam, which were then moderated using a controversial algorithm. Nearly 40 per cent of A-level results were downgraded last year in moderation.
Amid backlash, a U-turn allowed both A-level students and those awaiting GCSE results to take teacher predictions as their final grade instead.
Speaking on Wednesday about what went wrong last year, Mr Taylor said: “It’s always tempting in situations to blame the algorithm and say the algorithm was wrong or blame the statisticians, but that is the wrong response.
“To be clear, sometimes it is the algorithm that goes wrong, but in this instance, it wasn’t the algorithm. It was the policy choices that were made.”
The former head of Ofqual said: “It was, in effect, a gross miscalculation about what was a reasonable, acceptable way to treat people. And we need to understand how we came to make that miscalculation.”
Mr Taylor was at the helm of Ofqual when exams were cancelled for the first time due to coronavirus, before stepping down towards the end of last year.
During a virtual event run by the Centre for Progressive Policy think-tank, he said exams are the “legitimate and accepted way” to assign grades which are used to decide “consequential decisions”, such as who goes to university.
“Going to a university, particularly getting a good place at a university, is a life-changing opportunity. And to be any way cavalier or thoughtless about how that process works is a recipe for disaster,” he said.
Tens of thousands of A-level results were initially downgraded from teacher predictions in the original grading system last year.
Even after a U-turn allowed students to take higher teacher-estimated grades instead of any lower moderated ones, some still missed out on their university places last year, telling The Independent these predictions were lower than than expected.
In a personal reflection on what he thought went wrong, which was released earlier this week, Mr Taylor said it was a “huge ask” of somebody to accept their chances of going to university had been “taken away on the basis of an uncertain prediction on what might have happened if exams had not been cancelled”.
“The pain of disappointment falls on all students who were refused places, not just those incorrectly refused. It must do, since no-one can know the results of exams that never took place,” he wrote.
In his reflection, Mr Taylor added: “Allowing a much larger number of students to be admitted would limit the number who were wrongly excluded. This option was, to my knowledge, never seriously considered.”
On Wednesday, he told a virtual audience it was widely agreed the system for calculated grades would be the best way to proceed after exams were cancelled.
“It does require us to think quite carefully about how we could have collectively made a such a colossal misjudgment,” he said.
Mr Taylor also said officials were focused on making sure the system was not biased and “lost sight” of the bigger issue at hand, which was whether the system was “fair at all”.
Last year, the ex-Ofqual boss told MPs the regulator initially advised against cancelling exams last year and suggested holding them in a socially distanced manner or delaying exams, with some form of calculated grades as the third best option.
Awarding A-level and GCSE grades in the absence of exams aimed to keep as much consistency as possible with previous years, The Independent understands.
A Department for Education spokesperson said: “All decisions taken on assessments in 2020 were based on delivering the fairest outcome for students. At all times, the department worked closely with Ofqual to find solutions that would allow young people to progress to the next stage of their education or career.”
They added: “We lifted number caps in higher education and provided £20m to increase capacity for university places in the 2020-21 academic year. UCAS data showed that more students were placed on to their first choice course in 2020 than in 2019.”