Predictable problems and problems predicting grades….

imageIt’s Olympic season but crucially for those of us who teach 18 year olds there is another finishing post looming, very soon A-level grades will be upon us. Those grades will be scrutinised by everyone, the students themselves, their parents and teachers, school management and the press. A quick poke around in the educational press brought me to an article on the subject of predicted grades. According to UCAS certain groups of students are far less likely to meet their predicted grades than others.

So why are predicted grades such an issue and why do they matter?

I doubt anyone in the UK is unfamiliar with what we mean by predicted grades but to explain things for anyone outside of our system, this is how things in the UK work. University admissions are handled by UCAS who do a good chunk of the admin. When a student puts in their UCAS forms there are some certificates qualifications listed, almost certainly the student’s GCSE grades and quite often their AS grades (soon to change, see later..). There are also ‘predicted grades’ which are provided by the student’s school (subject teachers together with HE advisors/Head of 6th form). These are supposed to be a predication of the grade that a student is expected to achieve in their A-level exams, except quite often they’re not….

What evidence is used in formulating predicted grades?

For the last 10 years or more we have had the luxury of having AS grades to use in the process of making predications. These exams, taken at the midway point of the A-level and counting for half of the overall grade could be a pretty decent predictor of the end result. Even without those, students have regular in class and mock assessments throughout their A-level studies. Teachers, especially experienced ones, also have a certain amount of gut instinct where student performance is concerned. We tend to know who is a pretty solid A and who would need a certain amount of luck and a following wind to get that grade A on the day. Not that we’re allowed to get away with its just using gut instinct but it is there all the same.

So, with all that evidence of student performance over the 15 or so months of study leading us up to the 15th Jan deadline you would think that predicted grades could be written on tablets of stone. Except there are many other factors that can go into deciding that predicted grade….

“No-one studies for mocks”

All those in class tests and mocks, even those GCSE and AS exams… Apparently no-one ever studies for them because they kind of don’t count. So when you probe a student about their weak mock performance and intimate that it may have a significant effect on the grade that can be predicted for them then you may be met with “but it was just a mock”. Very few students will admit to doing loads of work for their mocks and still not getting great results, most would prefer to be seen as lazy and having done very little. So they will always try and convince us that they have more in the tank and yes of course they can get an A grade if you predict it and all those C grades were because they weren’t really trying. For some this might be true, I famously had a conversation with a lad I taught who after a strong AS resit asked me 4 days before A2 papers started what he needed to do to get an A*, I said ‘to have had this conversation with me 3 months ago’, he got an A*! For many students though, that extra that they can apparently promise doesn’t materialise.

Threshold grades

In today’s HE market there are sets of predicted grades that open more doors than others. Without that magical predicted ABB/AAB/AAA (depending on subject choice) no offers will be forthcoming, even if in reality the course and institution often accept a grade or even 2 lower (or like to play the change course offer game). So it’s a little bit of a cat and mouse game, entice the university with an attractive looking ABB candidate and get the offer… When that ABB turns into BBB the university have already decided it’s easier to accept -1 candidates that they know (through interview/applicant day) and who have made a commitment to them than to fish in the unknown of the clearing pool.

‘Other’ pressures…. And wanting to think the best

I’ll lump these all into one… Pushy parents who are over optimistic of their child’s talents…. SLT who will wonder what on earth has happened in your dept for your predicted results to slide… Over zealous data demons who will ask why a student whose ALIS/ALPS forecast says they should be getting an A* in your subject despite the fact they got a B at GCSE…. All these have influence. We are also working with quite broad brush strokes, we’re not predicting the % we think they will get but where they fit on a scale from A*-E (you’d hope we would be pretty good at spotting those who are likely to get grade U!) There is also the fact that teachers are overall nice people who want to think the best of their students. We want them to do well, we tend to err on the side of optimism where we can and we’re also working in an imperfect system where so much emphasis is placed on a few days in June and July.

So if everyone is stretching the truth then why does it matter?

The thing is, we also don’t want to get it wrong. Most schools don’t want to have a reputation for overpredicting lest it have an impact on students in future years. So if a school is consistently overpredicting A grades for applicants to say medical school then maybe their predictions won’t be taken so seriously in future years and fewer of their students will be called to interview. That could be disastrous.

Do predicted grades matter at all?

Whilst us A-level teachers can happily wave our students off to their first choice university despite a couple of dropped grades, that isn’t the end of the story. Potentially a student could end up on a course they aren’t suited for, where they may struggle and potentially drop out (an expensive mistake these days!) or even a pathway that isn’t appropriate (an apprenticeship may have been better for them as a learner).

These grades are also about to matter even more, or perhaps not. AS levels are on the decline. Entries for the first round of reformed AS levels are down, not as much as they could have been but in a tighter financial those exam fees could be significant savings for schools. AS levels have now been decoupled from the A2, if taken, they no longer count for half of the overall award. So many students will apply to university with only GCSE grades and predicted grades. As a response to this some universities (notably Cambridge but it’s only a matter of time before others come on board) are increasing the use of pretesting in order to provide additional data about the academic achievement and potential of an applicant.

Times are changing…. We shall see if predicted grades continue to have the importance they currently have..



2 thoughts on “Predictable problems and problems predicting grades….

  1. Good post Kristy – thanks.
    I think your comments about the impact of overly generous predictions on the reputation of the school as an accurate predictor is particularly important, and perhaps not one appreciated enough. As with any system based on trust and where people are asked for professional judgements, short-terms pressures on varying these judgements can have significant (and at the time not appreciated) long-term impacts.
    A major concern if predicted grades were not asked for, is that GCSE (or equivalent) grades then become even more important for prospective students, pushing further pressure down the system onto 14-16 year olds. This potentially then places even more pressure to teach to the test, at the expense of teaching the subject.
    Interesting times ahead.


    1. That’s the concern if the trust in the system breaks down, GCSE becomes even more crucial giving even less opportunity for kids to explore their subject choices, make mistakes and well, just be kids!
      The other concern with the increase in pretesting is that as with the current pretesting (BMAT, UKCAT, PAT etc) there will be certain schools that are better able to prepare their students than others. This could further disadvantage students in schools without a strong history of sending candidates to competitive courses and institutions.


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