Newly-arrived students at a British university. With lower-than-expected grades in their A-Levels, many UAE students are worried over their college admission prospects. Image Credit: AFP

Dubai: While many students in the UAE received favourable A-Level results last week, several others found themselves at the receiving end of a controversy as A-Level grades of students took a severe beating globally.

After receiving downgraded results, parents and students said their university prospects for the coming September semester have been ruined as they felt that getting admission into any decent higher-education institute will be very difficult with such dismal grades.

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Adding to the confusion are the ever-changing announcements by United Kingdom education bodies on how the downgraded results would be reviewed or be subject to appeals.

What is the controversy?

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, exams for the A-Levels (Advanced Levels), administered by various examination boards in the UK, were cancelled globally in June.

Some students, alongside A-Levels, had also selected subject exams under AS-Levels (Advanced Subsidiary) and IGCSE (International General Certificate of Secondary Education).

The school-leaving qualifications used for university entrance are internationally recognised. Outside of the UK, they are mainly administered by Cambridge Assessment International Education (also known as Cambridge International or just ‘Cambridge’).

Instead of sitting for exams in the May/June cycle, grades were calculated by a computer programme using predicted grades and ranks for each student and for each subject as provided by schools to the examination boards. The algorithm also used the school’s historical performance in the exams, as well as global performance statistics.

This “statistical standardisation” model, meant to check “teacher bias” or “grade inflation” has resulted in more than one-third of predicted grades marked down in England alone. In a few cases, the final mark is down by two grades or more.

In an update, Cambridge has said on its website: “We have been looking carefully at how to act on your feedback and at the same time make sure schools, universities and employers continue to trust our qualifications. On Tuesday, 18 August, we will let you know the actions we will take.”

‘Our plans have collapsed’

Imad Al Qaddoumi, a Jordanian father in Sharjah, said his son’s grades were severely marked down. For his AS-Levels, his predicted grades were A, B, C, but the awarded grades were two Us (Maths and IT) and C (Chemistry).

“This is unfair, there is no university that will accept these grades, in the US, Jordan or here. Our plans have collapsed. My son faces loosing half a year of what should have been his new university life — and that too in the rosiest scenario. It could be worse, it could take even longer,” said Al Qaddoumi.

“Based on all the evidence provided by the school to Cambridge, his grades should have been much higher. There is no transparency, we don’t know how or why the results were so low. And I cannot appeal on an individual basis, that’s the protocol right now.”

Offer rejected

Shaurya Chandrawanshi, who graduated from a UK school in Dubai, said the highly-selective London School of Economics has now rejected a conditional offer to him because he received one grade lower than expected.

He said his predicted grades were three A*, but he received two A* and one B.

“The university said I cannot come in unless my appeal is successful, but I highly doubt it will be. And, as things stand right now, students cannot appeal to Cambridge individually. It has to be done unanimously as a batch, as a whole, from the school. But even if one student in that batch is happy with his or her grade, why would that student appeal?” Chandrawanshi added.

“The highest grade anyone got in History from my school — we just started offering the subject this year — is a D. The vast majority have got Us, but on what basis? There is no historical data of our school-wide performance in that subject.”

He said a lot of his friends were considering taking a gap year from university because of being marked down.

‘There must be a review’

Hussain El Sayed Ismail, an Egyptian father in Sharjah, said his son’s predicted grades were A*, B, C, C, but the awarded grades were E, D, B, B.

“I had already paid for application for him to an American university in the UAE before the [final] results, based on his school performance. Now, how can he enter any university with these grades? It’s not his fault the grades are low,” Ismail said.

“There must be a review of all his grades. We, parents, have to raise our voices for our children’s future. Schools were asked to send their evidence for students’ predicted grades, which they did. Was that evidence afterwards just pushed aside, why were the grades so low?”

‘We feel cheated’

Another Egyptian parent, Mohammad Faruq Mohammad Sultan, said he was “shocked” to receive his son’s grades at his British school in Dubai.

“We were expecting A*, A, A but got B, B, C. After all the hard work, this is what we got. We feel cheated. Mistakes have been made in the results’ process, it’s a global issue. I only want to see what was agreed upon – that the students’ evidence-based predicted grades will carry due weight. I’m not asking for anything more than this,” Sultan added.

“These must be a review and an appeal process put in place as soon as possible. This is about our children’s future and their confidence in the education system.”

August 14 update: What is Cambridge saying?

“Since we released our results on 11 August, we’ve been listening to the feedback and suggestions from our schools and students. We know schools have been pleased that we were able to provide grades in challenging circumstances.

“We have also heard your concerns about some aspects of our process, and we understand the real anxieties Cambridge students are facing at the moment.

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“We have been looking carefully at how to act on your feedback, and at the same time make sure schools, universities and employers continue to trust our qualifications. On Tuesday, 18 August, we will let you know the actions we will take.”

The August 12 update regarding appeals:

“Schools can make different sorts of appeals to us, and students can take our exams in October and November, with extra subjects available and alternative arrangements to support schools with social distancing and safe reopening.”