Calculating Replacement Grades: NALDIC’s Position

Earlier this month Ofqual published its guidance to teachers, students, parents and carers on how Summer 2020 grades for GCSEs, A-Levels, Extended Project Qualification and Advanced Extension Award in maths would be calculated in the face of the cancellation of exams due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The document can be accessed here. NALDIC recommends that all educators with a responsibility for informing the way grades will be allocated for EAL learners read it in full.

This post constitutes NALDIC’s response to that guidance with recommendations for educators responsible for informing the calculation of replacement grades.

The key takeaway from Ofqual’s document is that:

“[Ofqual is] asking schools and colleges to use their professional experience to make a fair and objective judgement of the grade they believe a student would have achieved had they sat their exams this year.”

(Ofqual 2020, p5)

A summary of how these professional judgments will be standardised across the country to account for regional and idiosyncratic variation in these predictions is contained in the document. This will be addressed at the national level. The priority for teachers is to make a fair and objective judgment as a basis for this process.

This post highlights key areas for consideration when considering what grade to assign to EAL learners in your schools.

The Ofqual document refers explicitly to EAL learners as follows:

“How will this affect students who have English as an additional language (EAL)?

Schools and colleges should use their professional experience to make a fair and objective judgement of the grade they believe a student would have achieved had teaching and learning continued as normal and had they sat their exams. For students with English as an additional language (EAL), schools and colleges should consider the likely language acquisition a student would have made by the time of the exam as part of this and reflect this in their judgement.”

(Ofqual 2020, p11, emphasis added).

NALDIC believes that while this advice is sound and well meant, it is incorrectly focussed. Instead of focusing on English language proficiency as a key metric in informing predictions across subjects, teachers should instead focus on EAL learners’ demonstration of subject knowledge. English language (as we understand it from an EAL perspective) is not generally taught as a separate curriculum subject, nor assessed in any of the exams for which replacement grades are being calculated (unless a pupil is entered for IGCSE English). Therefore, asking teachers to consider merely how the language acquisition profile of individual pupils might have changed over this period is unlikely to be particularly helpful. Moreover, from the evidence we have on the time it takes EAL learners in the UK system to develop English language proficiency, and the confidence intervals around those estimates (e.g. Strand and Hessel 2018, Strand and Lindorff 2020), we might conclude that in the time between the point at which schools were closed and the sitting of the now cancelled exams (about two or three months), any improvement in English proficiency is likely to have been negligible. More important, as we see it, are teachers’ judgements about EAL learners’ content knowledge and understanding in each subject.

An EAL pupil with limited proficiency in English, particularly those at an early stage of learning and using English,  may well be able to understand much more than they can communicate. This is particularly true for learners who have received good quality EAL-sensitive teaching in curriculum content areas, designed to impart curriculum understanding while taking into account limits to the pupils’ English. Instead of focusing on the potential for English proficiency to have improved, therefore, NALDIC advises educators to take full account of their EAL learners’ efforts to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of subject content with the English they have at their disposal.

Much of the necessary information will come from schools’ EAL assessment data, in those schools that routinely collect and report them for record-keeping. Schools that have been collecting appropriate assessment data on their EAL learners, including their proficiency in English and their capacity to demonstrate subject knowledge either with or without language support, can use this information to form the basis of the predicted grades. Here, the advantage will be with schools whose teachers routinely use assessment approaches that allow EAL learners to demonstrate content knowledge and understanding without necessarily needing to rely on the idiomatic English normally expected for the subject.  

In some cases, demonstration of this knowledge will have been derived from ‘language light’ activities. For example, ordering a series of images to express understanding of the water cycle, or annotating diagrams with pre-prepared captions in lieu of writing a descriptive paragraph of a phenomenon.

In other cases, English may be better developed but not yet to the standard, or applying the idiomatic characteristics, expected.

For example, in a science lesson a pupil when asked to predict which of a collection of materials will float and which will sink and to give reasons for their prediction may say something like:

“It not fall because it not thick same water.”

In this case it can be argued that the pupil has demonstrated that they understand that materials that are denser than water sink and that materials that are less dense than water float. The language with which the pupil has expressed this knowledge is obviously not what we would expect of a highly proficient user of scientific English. Nonetheless, the underlying scientific concept is clearly present.

There will be many more examples like this, and each curriculum subject will bring its own challenges and affordances. For example, a highly contextualised subject like art may naturally provide more opportunities for pupils to demonstrate curriculum understanding than a subject that tends to be much more decontextualised or abstract, like history or physics. When assigning replacement grades teachers should focus on their assessment of their EAL learners’ content knowledge and understanding rather than their capacity to express it in idiomatic English normally expected for different age cohorts.

In addition to providing information about how pupils will be judged this year, the Ofqual document outlines opportunities for pupils to take their exams in autumn 2020 or summer 2021.

The relevant passage is:

“Students who feel that their grades from the summer do not reflect their ability will have the opportunity to take their exams in the autumn series or in summer 2021. If they choose to do this, students will be able to use the higher of the two grades for future progression.”

(Ofqual 2020, p12).

The decision of whether or not to take an exam in the autumn or next summer lies with the pupil, with guidance from their teachers and family. NALDIC sees a variety of disadvantages and advantages to this provision.

As we have noted, academic English takes a long time to develop. There is an argument that waiting until autumn term will give time for EAL learners to develop their academic language. As such, this may result in improved scores on these exams. This may be the case – indeed it may be the case for all students, EAL and monolingual alike. However, many pupils will have spent a long time away from good models of academic English between now and then. It is possible, therefore, that their English proficiency will not have improved, and in some cases may have regressed. In addition, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds may lack the infrastructure to engage in the emergency remote teaching currently being provided by their schools (this includes access to the internet, appropriate technology, spaces to work, support in interpreting instructions, and so on). Thus, these pupils will be at a disadvantage compared to their better advantaged peers or compared to themselves had this disruption not occurred. EAL status and lower socioeconomic status often coexist. Teachers should take this into account when helping their pupils with their decision about whether to sit the exams at a later date.

Waiting until summer 2021 may be more advantageous in terms of language acquisition and proficiency. It may also be advantageous in terms of content knowledge. But all of this will depend on what has happened in the life of the learner between summer 2020 and summer 2021. This, again, will be a matter for the individual, but we advise teachers to think carefully about the potential advantages and disadvantages of this approach, taking into account the education provision that the learner has engaged in and/or may experience in the next period (e.g. school leavers having moved into the workforce, or those in Year 12 having had little or no input in some of the subjects for which they will be sitting replacement exams).

In any case, Ofqual states that, should a pupil take the exams in autumn 2020 or summer 2021, the pupil will choose which of the two results (the teacher assessed prediction or the exam score) will be retained.

The bottom line for NALDIC is that predicting the subject assessment results for EAL learners should carefully consider the likely extent of their pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the content that would have been assessed in their exams and other curriculum tasks, not just their academic English proficiency. Predictions should take into account how well those pupils have demonstrated their content knowledge, with the English they have at their disposal, in normal formative and summative assessments conducted routinely up to the point at which their education was interrupted. is a publication of NALDIC, the subject association for EAL. Visit to become a member.