Using Predicted Grades for References

Becky Kleanthous  · Dec 2nd 2020

During the UCAS application window (other than six months off and a large glass of wine), what’s top of every teacher’s wishlist? Crystal balls, of course.


No, it’s not David Beckham’s latest nickname (though he might cheer up an exhausted Art teacher), but the kind of mystical globe favoured by psychics, mediums and fairground con-artists. As if we didn’t have enough hats to wear and balls to juggle, much weight is placed upon our ability to predict the future, and that can be a heavy burden when so much rests upon it… The academic future of our youngsters, to be specific.

Once you’ve got to grips with how to write a great UCAS reference (using our links here), be sure to check your mark-book and think twice about whether your predicted grades are really on the money, or whether they’re wide of the mark.

Alongside the skills and talents of your students, your UCAS references need to include information on the nitty gritty of their attainment. And while some systems (such as in the USA) have a more concrete, unambiguous admissions system relying on specific entrance exams a whole year in advance, we here in the UK like to keep things a bit lively. We ask teachers to guess - sorry - estimate how well their students are going to perform, and the universities base their decisions on that, meaning that at the very last moment - just weeks before the course starts - students might have to perform a U-turn if their exams aren’t up to scratch. It’s a lot of fun, if you’re a masochistic adrenaline junkie. Otherwise, it’s basically torture.

And while we tend to focus on that part - the last-minute disappointment for over-estimated students - as the real white-knuckle ride of the process, what about students with the opposite experience? Those who we’ve actually underestimated, who’ve unjustly had doors closed on them during the application process? It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone in education that certain marginalised groups are more likely to be underestimated than others, a horrendous truth of the 21st century.

So it falls upon us to do better. For as long as the university admissions procedure continues to depend on predicted grades (making us the only developed country to take this wonky approach), we need to at least try our hardest to provide accurate, unbiased and realistic estimates for all students. No pressure then, guys.

What’s the problem?

As teachers, we might feel confident scribbling down a few predictions for our students. Sometimes, you just know. Sean just is a C. Katy just is a B. However, much of the time, our classes might be too new for us to have formed fully fledged opinions (first opinions can be misleading, remember! Just think about your role-call of exes if you need more proof), or we might have subconscious biases influencing our decisions - for better or worse. Everyone harbours prejudices, and it can be hard to acknowledge this when we want so strongly to have open hearts and minds, but it’s much worse to close our eyes and ears and perpetuate inequality. Open minds need to accept that they might have been influenced by decades of cultural mythologising. Many teachers, without realising, are building up their white, middle class students, and knocking down those from ethnic minorities or poorer households. Clearly, we need a change.

In fact, the University and College Union discovered in 2016 that a staggering 75% of students were given overestimated predicted grades that they couldn’t live up to. That’s not just a problem: it’s an epidemic. On the other side of the coin, 9% of students had been underestimated, potentially missing out on more esteemed university places because their teachers didn’t recognise their full potential. Do the maths and you’ll see that we got it right just a pitiful 16% of the time. 16%! That’s essentially less reliable than just closing your eyes and putting a pin on a list of grades to determine someone’s academic ability. Maybe we should just velcro students to a giant roulette wheel and spin them to see which university they land on?

Put it all in context

First of all, your students aren’t learning in a vacuum. Billy achieving a B grade in English at a school which has a majority of students eligible for free school meals has almost certainly proved himself more capable than William at Eton achieving a B in English. Therefore, you must set the scene for the admissions tutor so that they can consider the grades against the learning context, and what that says about the student’s potential and achievements.

It needn’t be the Magna Carta; several sentences should be enough to give your reader the gist. Definitely don’t encroach too much on the space that you could be using to praise the talents of the student concerned, but it’s important to do them justice, so base the detail of contextual information upon what seems necessary. You might talk about the size of the school, its economic situation, or the particular challenges faced (a year of supply teachers, for example). You could mention the courses with high uptake and the demographic of your students. In some cases, it will even be necessary to touch upon school resources and policy, for example, if your students haven’t had the opportunity to study the expected four subjects, or to secure interim grades the previous year (such as AS levels). All of this stuff can be necessary to make sense of those predicted grades.

Extenuating circumstances

The school isn’t the only important factor in the educational context; the student has their own outside life as well. If there are mitigating factors which might have negatively impacted on their predicted grades, then you should say so. It’s important, obviously, to gain the student’s consent before including any personal information, but it’s almost always going to count in their favour if they are willing to share. Whether it’s family life (e.g. home repossession, divorce, family unemployment), illness, disability, bereavement, upheaval (moving school, or a drastic home move), it all contributes to blips in progress, so it would be helpful to outline for the admissions tutor.

Don’t forget this once the application has been fired off, either. Changes and disruptions can occur between an offer of a place and the sitting of exams, and you should try to inform the university as soon as possible if this is the case, so that they can still take it into consideration before results day.

Letters, numbers and hieroglyphics

Time to whip out those crystal balls again. I know, yours is a bit murky this year: try giving it a bit of spit and polish. It was already an imprecise science, but now that schools and colleges are in the process of moving from As, Bs and Cs to 9s, 8s and 7s, nobody really knows what’s what any more.

Look at how your students have achieved so far, and look at their recent classwork and homework. Look also at mock exam results. Are your predictions based upon what you think they should get (if they finally applied themselves) or what you think they will get (based upon everything you’ve seen of them - including attitude and work ethic?) You’ve got to ask yourself these questions to avoid over or underestimating their grades. Be as honest as possible to save everyone heartache and disappointment in the long run.

Ask colleagues to moderate a few samples of work if you’re concerned that you aren’t looking objectively at a student’s abilities. This is best practice anyway, and more open conversations about predicting grades would be healthy additions to most schools (some of which breed a culture of constant overestimation).

Finally, make sure that your reference and predicted grades work in harmony to recommend the student. Any bumps and anomalies should feature in your commentary so that they don’t put off the admissions officer. E.g. a D grade last year alongside a prediction of a B grade this year will need to be explained so that they trust your judgement when it comes to the prediction. Otherwise they’ll just assume you don’t really know what or who you’re talking about.

While predicted grades might seem like the fastest, simplest part of writing a reference (just a single press of the keyboard for a letter or a number), it turns out they are fraught with complex social inequalities and biases, and this can have huge repercussions for students and their academic futures. Keep this guide handy when it’s time to write your recommendations, and take the time to set a student’s learning in context, and when it comes to their grades, think twice before tapping the first key you reach for. Then you’ll truly be an excellent teacher (an A*! Or a 9! Or an eagle with one wing out and the other holding a candle!) and your crystal balls will be the shiniest in the land.

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