Northern Ireland’s exams qualifications body will allow mock test results to be used in appeals by pupils disputing their results this year.
As exams were cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic, calculated grades are being used to give pupils their A-level and GCSE results.
But there has been huge criticism of the methods used, which include a school’s past performance as well as pupils’ individual assessment by teachers.
Late on Tuesday night the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) said a broader scope for appeals is being allowed following this year’s A-level and GCSE awards.
Challenges will be free this year in light of the exceptional circumstances.
CCEA chief executive Justin Edwards added: “This year, due to the alternative arrangements it is not possible to ask for examination papers to be reviewed as would be normal.
“We recognise that there is robust evidence available on student prior performance and that this could be considered within the appeals process.
“The opportunity for schools and colleges to submit mock examination information and completed GCSE units provides a broader scope of evidence for appeal.”
CCEA added in a statement: “Schools and colleges may hold strong evidence of students’ prior performance from mock examinations and, for GCSE examinations, some completed units.
“As part of the appeals process this year, CCEA will consider such evidence.”
Education Minister Peter Weir welcomed the decision.
“I have made it clear that I do not want to see any pupil disadvantaged as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the same time it is important that qualification standards are maintained,” he said.
“I hope that these steps will provide reassurance to those students who are awaiting their examination results and I want to thank CCEA for all their work on this issue.”
Earlier TUV leader Jim Allister said there could be “at least a sample legal challenge” from angry parents after grades are issued tomorrow.
On Tuesday 75,000 pupils in Scotland had their results upgraded after Holyrood agreed to accept teacher estimates only in scores in this year’s Covid-19 affected exams.
The dramatic U-turn followed a public outcry after a moderation system — based on criteria that similarly included schools’ past performances — saw 125,000 estimated results being downgraded. These have now been withdrawn and replaced by the original estimates.
In a subsequent statement to the Belfast Telegraph, however, Mr Weir said there has been “no change” to the Department’s guidance, adding that “it is important we await the outcome of the current examination process”.
But with Northern Ireland using a not dissimilar format to the one just abandoned by Scotland, the CCEA and Department of Education are bracing themselves for a backlash, which could ultimately involve legal action.
Mr Allister said that one of the most concerning things is that Mr Weir and the Executive took no involvement in this issue, merely handing it over to CCEA.
“I don’t think Peter Weir can wash his hands as lightly as that,” said Mr Allister.
“He’s the Minister of Education. If an outcome of this is that pupils get an unfair grade, then I don’t think the minister who set up the system and handed it over to CCEA can say: ‘Nothing to do with me’. That certainly isn’t what’s happened in Scotland and I don’t think it would be sustainable here.”
In an earlier statement Mr Weir said: “Following the cancellation of the summer 2020 examinations due to Covid-19, CCEA put in place a process to award GCSE, A-level and AS-level grades based on a combination of teacher professional judgment and statistical modelling.
“A key element of the process is to ensure that qualifications standards are maintained this year. There has been no change in this guidance.”
The statement added: “Pupils in Scotland do not undertake GCSE and A-level examinations.”
Janet Williamson, principal of Royal Belfast Academical Institution, said there is “a collective concern” among head teachers here about the use of a school’s historic results to determine grades for individual pupils.
“I agree with colleagues who have a concern that historical trajectories are being used, because each year group is an individual cohort with their own specific strengths and weaknesses,” she said.
“For example, at RBAI I have a Year 14 where our predicted grades are higher than in previous years because that reflects that particular set of pupils and subjects they have chosen.
“I completely agree with colleagues that to not take into account the fact that each year group is different is a concern.
“I have expressed that to CCEA through ASCL (the Association of School and College Leaders).
“I have every confidence that the grades identified and verified by my heads of departments with their colleagues are accurate, robust and rigorous.
“At this stage we do not know what percentage weighting will be given to this by CCEA, and so whilst I have no concerns regarding the reliability of my in-house data, like everybody else the uncertainty around what is going to happen with the Z score is causing a slight increase in the normal tension we would always have had about the results.”
Mr Allister said he expected parents to react if they feel their child has been unfairly graded.
He also said “it’s possible” that solicitors will be inundated with calls from concerned parents come Thursday, but added: “It will require the internal appeals system, flawed as it is, to be exhausted before there’s recourse to the High Court.
“I’m quite sure, however, there will a judicial review challenge to the fact that there’s procedural unfairness.”
He added: “It sounds as if we’re judging the school rather than the pupil and the whole essence of testing and exams is that you judge the pupil irrespective of where they are from or who they are.
“Every one of these pupils has a right in public law to procedural fairness and a right to good administration, and if that is impacted by this system then it’s a fundamental flaw in the system, just as it was in Scotland.”