Computing students achieve high A-level grades despite coronavirus outbreak

A-level computing grades are up this year, even without students sitting exams because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The number of students in the UK achieving an A* grade in computing increased significantly from last year, with 8% of students achieving an A* grade in 2020 compared with 3.4% in 2019.

This is despite the fact that grades were decided through a combination of teacher recommendation, non-examined assessments, school data, and data from previous years, as Covid-19 prevented students from taking exams – a method many are concerned about.

Agata Nowakowska, area vice-president of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) for virtual learning platform Skillsoft, said: “The tears and cheers of this year’s A-level students will have been heightened as the lack of final exams is likely to have snatched away the opportunity for many to make that last big effort that could have meant the difference between success and failure.

“It’s impossible to know for sure how big an impact this will make to the 2020 results, but it’s fantastic to see that the trend of more girls sitting A-level science subjects has continued this year – particularly computing.”

A-level computing saw a rise in both male and female entrants across the UK, with 12,426 taking the subject compared with 11,124 last year.

Once again, the subject was more popular with boys than girls, with 10,629 male candidates this year compared with 9,649 in 2019, and only 1,797 female candidates this year versus 1,475 last year.

Grades were up significantly, with the number of students achieving an A* grade in computing up on last year.  

Female students achieved higher grades than male students in computing across the UK, with 11% of female candidates awarded an A* versus 7.5% of male candidates. Last year’s figures were 3.7% and 3.4%, respectively.

Russ Shaw, founder of Tech London Advocates and Global Tech Advocates, said an increase in overall computing A-level candidates is positive for the UK’s tech sector, but he pointed out that industry should try to address the low numbers of female candidates taking the subject, which is even less than the “woeful gender diversity” already present in the tech industry.

“Amidst the confusion and disruption of this year’s A-level results, the increase in computing graduates is a positive sign for the technology industry,” said Shaw. “The employment landscape has been transformed by the global health pandemic and never before has it been so important for the UK to equip young people with the skills required by technology companies – the businesses that have driven the vast majority of job creation over the past decade and will continue to do so in years to come.”

Almost 58% of female UK computing candidates achieved a B grade or higher this year, up from 41.6% in 2019.

This is more than the proportion of boys achieving higher grades in the subject, with 48.5% of male students achieving a B grade or higher, compared with 40.1% last year.

ICT numbers are still dropping as the subject is slowly phased out, with 1,332 students taking it this year compared with 1,572 in 2019, and although grades were up on last year, with 40% achieving a B or higher compared with 38.4% last year, this increase is significantly less than that seen in the computing results.            

But there has been controversy over how grades have been decided this year, especially as many claim this has led to results being lower than predicted in some subjects or for some pupils.

Because many exams could not take place due to restrictions put in place during the UK’s coronavirus lockdown, results were calculated using a combination of data including mock exam results, coursework grades, teacher predictions and centre assessment grades (CAGs) submitted by schools and colleges.

Statistical standardisation models were then used alongside these figures, and data from previous years’ results, to ensure grades reflected student performance without predictions being more optimistic than in previous years.

Although qualifications regulator Ofqual claimed that analysis of possible advantages or disadvantages for different socio-economic groups found there was no evidence of bias in this year’s grades, some believe this is cannot be verified unless the method used is published.

Attila Tomaschek, digital privacy expert at ProPrivacy, said: “When artificial intelligence solutions are being deployed to establish A-level grades in the UK in the absence of formal assessments in the wake of cancellations stemming from the Covid-19 crisis, there are concerns that certain biases may emerge in this case as well, which may be unfairly detrimental to disadvantaged and vulnerable pupils.

“It is not enough to simply expect pupils to trust in the power of an algorithm without allowing it to be held up to scrutiny. There needs to be much greater transparency in this process for the public and for students to have confidence in the accuracy of the results that the algorithm produces.”

However, the university and college admissions service UCAS has claimed that more students from disadvantaged backgrounds in England have found a place on a university course this year.

There is an appeals process for those not happy with their results, and colleges, sixth forms and universities have been encouraged to be more flexible with admissions this year.

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