More than a third of estimated grades allocated by teachers to Northern Ireland’s A-level and AS level students were lowered in the final results.
About 28,000 pupils across Northern Ireland received their results on Thursday morning.
While the proportion of A* to A A-level grades rose by 2.3%, 37% of estimated grades were lowered; 5.3% were raised.
This year’s results were estimated after exams were cancelled by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Last year, 45.8% of estimated grades provided by schools matched the student’s final results.
This year, 58% of A-level and AS results matched the estimated grades.
In Northern Ireland, A-level grades were based on previous AS results, resit data and teachers’ predicted grades for their students.
A similar system was used in England, where 36% of entries had a lower grade than teachers predicted.
The proportion of A* grades in Northern Ireland has risen by 1%.
A* to A grades rose by 2.3%. The overall percentage pass rate rose by 0.8%.
The chief executive of examination body CCEA said if teacher judgement had been used on its own, results would have risen “considerably”.
Justin Edwards said often teachers “over-predict” or are “over confident” when it comes to predicting the lower C-E grades in particular.
But he added he was “eternally grateful for the education workforce of Northern Ireland”.
Mr Edwards said CCEA was the only awarding body in the UK who historically asked for predicted grades prior to issuing results.
“The main reason we ask for this is if something terrible happens to a child and we have to issue results and we want to know how to predict results for that child we can return to that data for that child,” he said.
“In 2019, the predictions that were given to us were 45.8% accurate against the actual exam results that the children achieved, that is for both grammar and secondary schools.”
However, some head teachers have said their school’s A-level grades have dropped significantly from the grades predicted by teachers.
Alan Hutchinson, from Glastry College, said 56% of their grades had been reduced.
Mr Hutchinson said he had “no confidence whatsoever in what has been used”.
“There are huge anomalies,” Mr Hutchinson said.
“One pupil who achieved and was predicted an A at AS level has been taken down to a B – another pupil hadn’t achieved an A but has been awarded an A.
“The important thing in this is not data, it’s children and their futures. We have had teachers dealing with children who have had their dreams and aspirations taken away from them by an algorithm.”
Results controversy just the beginning
Analysis by BBC News NI education correspondent Robbie Meredith
We should remember first of all that grades, overall, went up this year, so many pupils are going to be happy.
CCEA can say that their model allowed grades to rise, though not in an outlandish way.
However, many school staff feel that their predictions were totally ignored.
About 40% to 50% of predictions were lowered in some cases and there is anger and bewilderment.
I was talking to one grammar school head teacher this morning who had a pupil who at AS level was predicted a C grade but got a U.
They said that pupil was devastated – in tears – and the head can’t work out how that happened.
This morning’s results are just the beginning, rather than the end of the story.
St Cecilia’s College principal Martine Mulhern said her experience on results day had been of “sheer disappointment”.
“I haven’t slept all night, because I am just worried about going in and facing the day,” she told BBC NI’s Good Morning Ulster.
“I have just found the results to be very erratic, a lack of consistency.
“I am waking up this morning to hear that Wales have said that they are guaranteeing A-level or A2 students their AS grades as a minimum grade, whereas 13% of our grades at A2 level were actually lower than their AS grades, which we would have always considered to be the baseline from moving on to A2.
“I understand these are very difficult circumstances and CCEA have worked very hard to come up with a model, but in all of that what has been lost are the children.”
Is there a fair way to award grades without exams?
Even exams can be unfair. Sometimes two people marking the same paper will give different grades.
But this year’s assessment and today’s downgrades have left many people feeling their future chances have been harmed by an algorithm.
The standardisation system that led to the downgrades is there to stop grade inflation.
Without it, there would have been a 12% increase in people getting an A* or A grade, according to the head of Northern Ireland’s main examination body – CCEA.
But if a school has a stronger year group than last year, or if teaching has improved, that might not be fully recognised this year.
And the information available to calculate grades differs across the UK: like in Wales, AS results contribute to overall A-level results in Northern Ireland and therefore can be taken into account.
However, this doesn’t happen in England – where AS grades have no bearing on A-level results.
Research suggests that using AS performance can improve the overall accuracy of grades.
Grades could be calculated using a range of evidence including work to date, mock exams and teacher assessed grades, but even experts can’t agree on a perfect way to navigate yet another difficult problem caused by the coronavirus.
In response, Education Minister Peter Weir said that in “any case in which somebody has been unfairly treated because the grade they have received does not reflect their prior performance, then there is the opportunity directly for an appeal”.
“And indeed anybody in that circumstance will be treated sympathetically.”
In a statement, Mr Weir said it was important that this year’s results were “comparable to those awarded in past years and recognised as equally valid to avoid any long-term detrimental impact”.
“Full credit must go to teachers and school leaders who very quickly produced the professional judgements required and submitted these to CCEA within the very tight deadlines set.
“However, for those not happy with the outcome I would emphasise that the results today are provisional, and there is an appeals process available.”
In an email to principals on Wednesday, CCEA had admitted there would be “anomalies” in some of the grades awarded.
It said it would “start contacting schools where we have seen anomalies in terms of judgements provided and the grade issued”.
As exams were cancelled, grades are awarded based on predicted grades from schools, which have been standardised by CCEA.
A similar system is also in place in England and Wales, and about 12% of pupils in Northern Ireland take subjects through exam boards from those countries.
In Scotland, results predicted by teachers alone will now be used to give pupils their grades.
That is after a major U-turn by the Scottish government on Tuesday, which abandoned a moderation system for grades by the Scottish Qualifications Authority (SQA).
The 2020 results show that maths, biology, business studies, religious studies and chemistry were the top five most popular subjects among Northern Ireland’s A-level students.
Almost 40% of A level entries in Northern Ireland were in STEM subjects.
There was a 2.3 % rise in the number of females studying science, technology, engineering and maths in comparison to last year.
Pupils in Northern Ireland have outperformed their counterparts in England and Wales in recent years.
Just over 30% of entries were awarded A* or A grades in 2019.
CCEA is operating a dedicated exams helpline for pupils on 028 9026 1260 from 13-26 August.