DfE should act to prevent Covid impact on GCSE performance

Early data suggests this year's performance data risks being unfairly skewed without changes to account for the ongoing legacy of Covid, says Duncan Baldwin

Early data suggests this year's performance data risks being unfairly skewed without changes to account for the ongoing legacy of Covid, says Duncan Baldwin

31 Aug 2023, 5:00

In 2016, the government introduced a new headline performance measure for GCSE: progress 8. Advocates of this measure, myself included, welcomed this because it recognised what schools achieved for pupils with low prior attainment. Previously, pupils needed to attain a grade C in five subjects, including English and mathematics to meet the government’s performance threshold, a level beyond the reach of many.

Shortly after progress 8 was introduced, a headteacher sent me a graph which connects pupils’ attainment 8 scores to their key stage 2:

The red line shows the national average for all pupils. Progress 8 is then effectively how much above and below that line the pupils are collectively.

I often used this graph with heads, officials and policy makers. I asked them to estimate roughly how good this school was, from ‘well above average’ to ‘well below’. The typical response was that the school was below average; there are more dots below the red line.

By eye, this seems a reasonable response, but most people didn’t factor in the impact of the eight pupils with very low attainment 8 scores. As intuitively reasonable statisticians, they assumed those results were somehow implausible. With those pupils included, the progress 8 score was -0.42, pretty close to the government’s floor standard at the time. With those pupils omitted, the score would be -0.2, in line with most people’s views. Just eight pupils from a cohort of 120 made a difference of 0.2 to the school’s score.

There are already some worrying signs

Following some persistent lobbying, the DfE introduced a mechanism to adjust the scores of pupils with very low attainment 8 scores. Effectively, this provided a minimum score for each prior attainment group. Pupils with attainment 8 below that minimum level had their scores adjusted upwards. The DfE now publishes adjusted progress 8 as its headline measure, but also publishes the unadjusted score.

This was a welcome change. In practice it usually made only a minor difference to schools’ scores, and adjustments only start for pupils mid-way through the prior attainment range, but it did at least recognise the disproportionate impact pupils like this have on the measure.

School leaders everywhere know how much work, care and resource pupils who fall into this category take, and how frequently the problems associated with them are well beyond the scope of what schools can reasonably hope to address. The eight pupils above were all in this situation. The reasons they attempted very few or no exams included being in police custody, pregnancy and long-term absenteeism condoned by parents. Schools serving disadvantaged communities are more likely to have pupils in similar circumstances.

This year, schools around the country have expressed great concern about the attendance and wellbeing of their year 11 pupils and their approach to GCSE exams. They say that more pupils have missed some or all of their exams without genuine reasons that might allow their schools to apply for special consideration. Nor would they qualify for exemption from performance tables through the checking exercise available to schools.

If this is the case, it will take some time before data is available to confirm it, but there are already some worrying signs. In the GCSE data released by JCQ this week, the proportion of pupils getting an ungraded result in English nearly doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels in 2019.

Pupils who didn’t engage with exams at all and were either not entered, withdrawn or received an ‘X’ grade aren’t included in the JCQ figures, so the actual proportion of pupils in this cohort without grades will be higher. Schools already have accurate estimates of their progress 8 scores from their data providers, with many reporting an increased number of pupils with very low scores because of this problem.

As the DfE has navigated the impact of the pandemic, it has taken some steps to modify how performance measures are calculated. I suggest that a further helpful step it could take this year, recognising the situation faced particularly by schools in challenging circumstances, would be to consider lowering the threshold for adjustment of progress 8 scores and introducing adjustments for pupils with lower prior attainment.

By doing this, it would recognise and acknowledge the continuing difficulty all schools are having following the pandemic. In particular, it would value the work of those inclusive schools that have tried their utmost to engage students but may find themselves unduly penalised by the progress 8 measure this year.

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