Hundreds of thousands of teenagers in England tore open envelopes this week bearing the results of their A-levels, comprehensive exams that are supposed to assess the quality of their secondary education and serve as a barometer for college entrance.
But many were in for disappointment, when the grades handed out in England, Wales and Northern Ireland were lower than they had expected, based on their past grades and performance on previous “mock” exams. That was the result of a system designed as a stand-in for exams that had to be canceled this spring amid the coronavirus pandemic, one that has been sharply criticized as unfair to students from disadvantaged areas.
Samantha Smith, 18, from Telford in England’s struggling West Midlands, said she had long harbored concerns the system would affect disadvantaged students more. Her fears were confirmed, she said, when she received scores far lower than she had expected.
“It was unfathomable,” she said. “It felt like a reminder of my place, and it felt as though it was a way of the exam board saying your post code is more important than your potential.”
Those grades have left her ineligible for any of the law programs she had expected to begin in the fall.
Ms. Smith has joined many students, parents, teachers and lawmakers in criticizing the grading system, calling it arbitrary and classist. Legal challenges to the results have already begun.
In a typical year, students preparing for college in Britain would sit for the advanced level qualifications, known as A-levels, in the summer, and the grades would determine university placements. The exams are subject-based and often compared to the American SAT or ACT college entrance exams — also criticized as biased against disadvantaged students — but they carry even greater weight.
For most university-bound British students, the A-level results are the only quantitative measure of their secondary education.
But in the absence of testing because of the coronavirus, the government introduced a complicated system to provide a grade for those students. First, teachers gave an estimate of how their students would have performed had they taken the tests. Those grades were then moderated by Ofqual, England’s watchdog for exams and assessments, which adjusted the grades through a computer algorithm.
But that calculation heavily weighted the historic performance of individual schools. That had the effect of raising scores for students from private schools and those in wealthy areas and depressing scores for students from less advantaged areas.
Ms. Smith, a first-generation Briton of Afro-Hispanic descent who was homeless for two years beginning at age 16, had looked forward to taking her exams this year to qualify for a law program. Despite the homelessness, and working three jobs while finishing her schooling, she had secured a place preliminarily in the law programs at two universities, based on her results in practice exams.
“Your personal circumstances, your efforts overcoming adversity, it doesn’t matter,” she said. “Because a person like you, a person from your background, from your socio-economic class, you aren’t expected to do well. That’s the same brush they paint you with.”
On average, student results have risen in England, with slightly more of the highest grades handed out than in previous years. But around 40 percent of students in England received a grade one step lower than their teachers predicted, according to the BBC, citing Ofqual figures, and 3 percent of students were shifted down by at least two grades.
In the face of a furious backlash, the Department of Education said students could appeal their grades, sit for exams in the fall or use the results of practice exams if those scores were higher.
At Leyston Sixth Form College, a school for 16 to 19 year olds in East London, about 47 percent of the students received grades lower than those estimated by their teachers, the principal, Gill Burbridge. said. That discrepancy was significantly higher than the national average.
“These students are being judged not on their performance — because it’s never been tested in the exam room — but based largely on the historical data of the school” they attended, she said.
The fact that high-performing students with strong academic credentials who attend schools in less advantaged areas are likely to see a lower grade than those attending an elite school amounted to “a scandal,” she said.
At her school, Ms. Burbridge said, the impact has been felt most among the highest and lowest achievers. For students aspiring to places at highly competitive universities, a slight reduction in their grades based on the algorithm could alter the course of their careers.
On the other end of the spectrum, the lowest-performing students were assigned failing grades in subjects they may have passed if actually tested.
“I do not see how a student can fail something that they haven’t actually themselves done,” Ms. Burbridge said.
Like many administrators and teachers, she believes the system was ill-conceived and deeply flawed. She said the teachers’ assessments of their students’ grades are a better barometer of the students’ skills than the system devised by the government.
“A lot of my students have neither got the grades that they deserve nor the grades that they need to progress to the next stage in their education or employment or apprenticeships,” she said.
Some have called for the resignation of Gavin Williamson, Britain’s education minister, with some students protesting outside government buildings on Friday. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson has defended the system as providing a “robust set of grades.”
Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said in a statement posted to Twitter that “the scale of the injustice caused by the fatally flawed results system has become clear.”
“Young people and parents right across the country, in every town and city, feel let down and betrayed,” he wrote, saying the government’s approach to education had led to “unprecedented” “chaotic circumstances.”
He demanded a return to teacher assessments as “now the best option available.”
For many students, the coming weeks will be a scramble to see whether they can enroll in a university with their current or mock scores, or whether they will appeal the results or re-sit exams next year.
“It’s a massive thing,” said Amy Turnbull, 19, a student from Manchester who received her results on Thursday.
She had expected to take her exam this summer, after already postponing exams for a year as she recovered from a broken back from a skiing accident. She expected to achieve marks that would allow her to enroll in a competitive medicine program, but instead of the three A’s she expected she got three C’s.
“I felt devastated — I felt like my whole future had just been torn away,” she said.
While she has received an offer of a placement at another university, Ms. Turnbull said the grades could damage her career prospects.
“It’s determining the future of what you are going to go do for the rest of your life,” she said. “So it’s not something to be taken lightly.”