‘I went from a B to a fail’: Scottish students on their results being moderated down

‘It’s a total kick in the teeth’

This year is the first in history that A-level and equivalent exams are being based on predicted grades, not exam scores. Most students were aware of their predicted grades and took them as gospel. But yesterday Scottish Year 13 students opened their results and 124,564 of them had been marked down.

Three-quarters of predicted grades were accepted (unchanged) but the Scottish examination board SQA adjusted just under 25 per cent of them, and of that 25 per cent that were adjusted, 93 per cent were moderated down. That meant that students’ predicted grade fell by at least one, but sometimes the result was worse: students were finding themselves with As marked down to Fs, a C down to No Award (a fail), or sometimes no grade next to their subject at all.

Scottish students are gutted. Some have missed out on university places, medical careers and for others it’s simply a massive let down. They expected their predicted grades to stay the same. While national results were still on average higher than the year before, and SQA insists the moderation was essential for maintaining the “integrity” of exam results, the individual disappointment resulting from moderating these “inflated” predicted grades down has hurt so many young people.

It’s also brought forward criticism that poorer students have been hit hardest, as schools’ previous performance is one of the factors used to moderate predicted grades. If it’s a low performing school, most likely in a poorer area, a student’s predicted grade is more at risk of being considered inflated and moderated down to fit in line with averages of previous years. The whole process has fostered a sense of distrust in Scottish students, and the flood of appeals SQA is about to be drowned in is a testament to that.

The Tab spoke to a few of these students to find out how it felt to have their grades drop through no fault of their own. Holly Spaton, who received a D in Psychology despite averaging As all year and getting a B in her mock exam, says she’s completely unsure of how she ended up not only with a lower grade, but failing the subject. She told The Tab: “In my prelim [mock] results I received a B for Higher Psychology and was consistently scoring As in class tests (which to my knowledge, were submitted by my tutor to the SQA as further evidence of his prediction). I was told by my tutor he predicted me a high B and before leaving school we finished our psychology assignments, which to my knowledge was at a B level as well. There was no suggestion to me that I would fail and I am very shocked at the results.”

Luckily, Holly has an unconditional offer for her uni of choice – but she knows not everyone else is as fortunate: “I feel terrible for those around Scotland who have been let down today by the SQA, I know of some in my year that aren’t able to go to their first choice of university/college now due to these results. Plus, I just found out another one of my classmates didn’t get anything – like there isn’t a trace of Higher Psychology on her certificate. Not even a ‘N/A’ in place of the result.” Holly is appealing her D grade to SQA, and hopes to get her predicted B even if she doesn’t need it for university admission.

Some students are appealing for reasons beyond closure. Liam Moss was predicted straight As across the board in his results and was devasted to realise two of these predicted As had dropped to Bs come results day. “My results were not terrible but honestly I was devastated by the two Bs,” Liam told The Tab. “I had been working all year round at As. My maths prediction was an A1 [high A grade] yet I received a B.”

Liam needs four As and only one B to get into his uni of choice

“I’m currently in contact with my teachers who are angry and shocked at these results and are appealing for both – and they say they have more than enough evidence to get the As. The course I’m looking at for uni requires four As and only 1B, so I really hope the appeal comes through.”

Another student who was relying on results for a uni place was Megan Roberts. Meg had been banking on a B for her first choice, City of Glasgow College. “I was predicted at a B in psychology and that would have gotten me into my first choice, where I had a conditional offer” she said. “I needed a B. My backup was New College Lanarkshire where I needed a C and because I got a high C in my prelim and with the predicated grades and course work, we assumed at the worst I’d be able to get into my second choice. But when exam results came in I was downgraded to a D.”

Thankfully after Meg got in contact with New College Lanarkshire and told them she’d be appealing, they gave her a place anyway despite missing the requirements. Meg feels the downgrading is the result of her area and poor performance of her school. “Thousands of people like me have missed out on uni and college places as they attended a school in an underprivileged area where the schools had low to average attainment results in the past years. It feels like I was automatically classed as stupid because I’m residing in a low income area and don’t go to the ‘best’ school.”

Some Scottish students were unlucky enough to have more than one result graded down. Thomas Donald told The Tab: “Both my Higher Psychology and Higher Business marks were downgraded from strong As in the prelim [mocks] to a C and B grade respectively. It appears to me that the SQA don’t trust teachers’ judgments and are going off of previous years’ ratios of certain grades in classes, which I personally think is completely unfair.”

“Evidence is coming out that it has affected lower-income areas worst. I’m not from the wealthiest area but not the poorest either. Note that I have not heard of one person I know who got an A in psychology. I’m just annoyed. Thankfully I don’t need grades to get into university or the likes but I know some who do and it’s just so unfair. I’m appealing both these results and all the evidence I have suggests the grades should be changed. It’s just an absolute shambles and it feels like the SQA have asked teachers for their grade recommendations and just not taken them into consideration at all.”

Jenna Thomson was one of the students who fell victim to the average of her poor-performing school. Braidhurst High School was the lowest-performing school in the area last year. Jenna told The Tab: “I know a girl who had all five of her grades lowered. For me personally, when I opened my results and saw I had got my A in higher modern studies I was so happy (I was resitting it this year). Then I looked and just seen higher psychology C and it just filled me with anger as I had been told I was predicted an A.

“I was so chilled all summer because I thought I had got my perfect grades. On results day I sat for about an hour or two trying to see if the same had happened to anyone else from my school/about the country and I saw that majority of people had the same done to them. I called my school and they said they’re going to try appeal my mark for me as I shouldn’t have realistically gone from an A to a C when all my work showed I was a potential A candidate.”

Jenna describes the whole grade moderation process as a “kick in the teeth” for already anxious Year 13s. “I think all sixth-year [A-level] students were already extremely anxious about whether or not they’d get to college or uni due to the pandemic. Plus we were dealing with the uncertainty that brought, as a lot of people didn’t know if they would be completing their first year entirely from home or if it would be cancelled. Then when the grades were lowered it was so bad for those relying on conditional offers. Although everyone says grades don’t define you as a person they still play a big part in the opportunities you can access.”

The SQA have defended their moderation process, with a spokesperson telling The Tab: “We believe we have delivered fairness to learners, through a consistent, evidence-based approach in the absence of exams. We have maintained the integrity and credibility of our qualifications system, ensuring that standards are maintained over time, in the interests of learners, through judicious moderation of grades.

“The most disadvantaged young people have achieved better results in 2020 compared to both 2019 and the average results for the last four years. At Grades A to C, the attainment gap between the most and least disadvantaged young people is also narrower this year for National 5, Higher and Advanced Higher than for last year or the average gap for the last four years.

“Our free appeals service opened yesterday. Schools and colleges that have questions about a candidate’s final grade can appeal the result if it is lower than what they estimated. They need to have permission from the candidate and sufficient evidence to support the initial estimate. Priority will be given to those candidates wishing to confirm a college or university place. If learners have any questions about their results they should speak to their school, college, or training provider first.”

Photo (before edits) by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

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