GCSE and A-level results 2021: What is grade inflation?

How does grade inflation happen at GCSE and A level? And what steps are put in place to prevent it?
5th August 2021, 7:00am
Tes Editorial

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GCSE and A-level results 2021: What is grade inflation?

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Has This Year's Exam Saga Undermined Ofqual's Attempts To Prevent Grade Inflation.

Grade inflation is a phrase that may be heard a lot over the next week or so as students receive their GCSE and A-level results via teacher-assessed grades (TAGs).

But what is grade inflation, why does it occur and does it really matter? We offer a brief overview of the issue below.

What is grade inflation?

Grade inflation refers to an upward trend in the average grades awarded to students for a particular academic qualification. 

Over the years, there has been much debate about student performance and the possibility of awarding progressively higher grades for work that would have received less credit in the past.

Grade inflation, if true, is potentially very harmful, as it diminishes the value of grades awarded over the years and calls into question the credibility of the exams system.

Grade inflation in 2020 and 2021

Owing to the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, students did not sit external exams in 2020 and 2021. Instead, GCSE, A-level and Btec grades were calculated using assessments conducted in schools. Centre-assessed grades (CAGs) were used in 2020, and TAGs were used this year.

As a result of using CAGs rather than exams, grade inflation was set at a record high in 2020, with 76 per cent of entries scored a 4/C grade - considered a standard "pass" - or better in England, compared with 67.1 per cent last year.

In 2021, it is anticipated that grade inflation will be even higher. There is also concern that students who attended private schools will have higher inflation, widening the attainment gap between state- and private-educated students.

What measures are in place to prevent it?

In normal years, Ofqual and the Office for Students seek to maintain the integrity of standards across qualifications. In recent years, both organisations have had to investigate concerns surrounding the validity of the internally assessed "old-style" Btec qualifications, as well as a rise in the number of students leaving university with first-class degrees.

Cath Jadhav, associate director of standards and comparability at Ofqual, explains that several measures are in place to guard against grade inflation.

"Ofqual works with exam boards using a number of measures, including statistical analysis, to maintain the standards from one year to the next," Jadhav explains.

"We do this at cohort level, and between different exam boards, to make sure that it isn't any easier to get a grade 4 with one board than another." 

How do grade boundaries work?

While it is inevitable that, across boards and over years, exam papers will display some variation in difficulty levels, grade boundaries are set at the end of the marking period and are altered to account for this.

When setting grade boundaries, senior examiners will compare scripts to those of previous years and explore the key stage 2 data for that cohort to reach logical conclusions about where students' progress is expected to be by this examination series. 

"The exam boards assume that in the absence of any other evidence, the progress between KS2 and GCSE will be the same year on year," Jadhav says.

There have been recent reforms to the GCSE, A level and vocational specifications and new 9-1 grading systems were introduced. 

These reforms involved the inclusion of more challenging content and a grade 9 at GCSE. They also reduced (or removed entirely) the credit given for internally assessed components in many subjects. 

Ofqual also put guidance in place on how the exams are marked, the details of which are explained in this video.

What is the National Reference Test?

Finally, Ofqual has introduced additional measures to help track student performance, such as the National Reference Test, which is designed to help detect changes in student performance in English and maths.  

The test indicates the percentage of students who are predicted to achieve at least a grade 4, 5 or 7 in their GCSEs, the results of which will be analysed each year and changes taken into account when final GCSEs are awarded. This process ensures that grade inflation is avoided, and that genuine improvements are recognised so that the GCSE grades students receive are a true reflection of their performance in the assessment.

Do changes in performance mean artificially inflated grades?

There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration when exploring real or perceived examples of grade inflation and an upward trend doesn't necessarily mean that grades have been artificially inflated. Student performance may have genuinely improved or there may be something else contributing to the overall picture.

Jadhav gives the example of early entry as a reason why grades have appeared inflated in the past: "Sometimes an increase [in the number] of higher grades can be due to the changes in the way students are entered. A few years ago, we saw a lot of students being entered early for GCSE and then having a second chance of sitting it, and then this can mean that the national results look very different."

Whatever the case, exam boards and regulatory bodies have a duty to closely analyse student performance year on year and investigate any significant changes to trends in grade distribution to prevent artificial grade inflation in the future.

The sawtooth effect

The sawtooth effect is a student exam performance pattern that can be seen when assessments, such as GCSEs and A levels, are reformed. 

The sawtooth effect refers to the decrease that is seen in exam performance when a new specification is introduced, and then the improvement in exam performance in subsequent years. The name "sawtooth" comes from the jagged shape this creates when plotted on a graph.

You can read more about it in Tes' guide to the sawtooth effect and its implications for teachers.

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