What’s the point of predicted grades?


Karen Sullivan cannot understand why we still use the predicted grades system for applying to university. She considers some of the negative implications of this age-old approach.

Despite having two sons go through the UK secondary school system, and having written about education for 25 years, I still cannot get my head around the benefits of the predicted grades system. 

Of course in Canada, where I grew up, there is nothing like the number of applicants to higher education, making “actual grades” that much easier to produce and assess. However, in the USA, where there are many more than in the UK, they have managed to create a system that focuses on the reality of a student’s ability and achievement.

A recent study found that only 48 per cent of A level predictions are correct, and 10 per cent are out by more than one grade. The majority of inaccuracies were over-predictions, and herein lies the problem. Predicted grades are used by universities to assess suitable candidates. While universities like Oxbridge have further assessment criteria, including aptitude tests, interview performance, teacher references etc, the vast majority rely on predicted grades alone.

There is something wholly unsettling about providing a teenager with an inflated predicted grade. While they will know in the conscious part of their brain that they will need to work hard to achieve the grade in question, it is also absolutely certain that students will accept the grade as a fait accompli and assume that current work rate and level of achievement will suffice – if even on a subconscious level. Predicting a higher grade does not encourage students to aim higher, but ostensibly tells them that they are working at that level now.

Let’s look at this in practice. A bright student is hoping to attend a university where requirements are AAB. In the past, he’s had a clutch of Bs, some low As and even the odd C. His predicted grades (based presumably on what he is capable of achieving) are AAA, giving him an instant offer. So what does this student do? Think, I must work harder to raise my usual Bs to A standard; or does he think – hey, I’m good enough doing what I’m doing now.

Intrinsic to the inflated predictions is pressure put on teachers by pushy parents and students themselves, who feel that an inflated grade is somehow their right. Few teachers will ever want to deflate an enthusiastic and aspirational student’s dream, but a reality check is definitely in order. As countless studies have shown, inflating predictions demotivates and also leads to a sense of complacency. The opposite is also true. Providing lower predictions may not lead to an instant conditional offer from the best universities, but it will inspire students to work harder towards achieving their goals and also encourages a sense of “I’ll prove them wrong”.

With the new system to remove coursework from final grades looming, it is increasingly important that students have a fair and accurate understanding of their own potential – as well as guidance to ensure they have the tools they need to improve their grades, including extra revision classes, regular goal-setting and analysis of performance, and, of course, encouragement. 

While results on tests throughout the year may reflect ability to some extent, the truth is that the “final exam” scenario will not suit all learners and they must be well-prepared in order to achieve optimum results. There is a call for grades to be actual, rather than predicted, which would remove any possibility of students either accepting their lot and failing to aim high enough – or establishing an inflated self-view that will undermine motivation and a genuine desire to succeed. 

In the interim, it’s important that parents and students alike understand the negative impact of inflated predictions, and accept that students have to earn their grades, with all of the hard work, determination, self-belief and desire that this entails.

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com


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