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GCSEs: 'Pass' grades to get tougher and new recognition for 'exceptional' pupils

Radical plans for a harder GCSE “pass” grade – benchmarked to top-performing international systems – and a new top grade for “really exceptional” students were unveiled today.

Ofqual, the exams regulator, has revealed where it wants to set a tough new bar for reformed GCSEs that will see A*-G grades replaced with grades 9-1. The watchdog has proposed that grade 9, the top grade, will be achieved by just half the percentage of students currently awarded an A*.

Grade 4 would be pegged to the existing C grade. But the “pass” grade – previously used for official judgements on schools – is expected to be a tougher grade 5, set according to standards in high-performing countries.    

The qualifications will be introduced in England next year, with the first exams in English language, maths, and English literature to be sat in 2017.

They will be accompanied with a new “national reference test” to be taken annually by a representative sample of several thousand Year 11 students. It will be designed to help ensure that genuine improvements in performance can be reflected with better GCSE grades, according to an official consultation launched today.

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual chief regulator, said: “How standards are set and maintained, in effect where we set the bar and how we hold it steady, are extremely important issues.

“We want to hear from students, parents, employers, higher and further education, school leaders and teachers about our proposals.”

The new system should make a big difference to schools; the nine new grades will be much more skewed towards higher-achieving pupils than the eight grades of the current system. Teachers have mixed feelings about the idea.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, told TES: “The positive is that we need to recognise that we should aim as high as we can for everybody.

“The negative is that with an exam that goes up such a long way, will we create failures with more people falling through the system?”

The suggestion that grade 4 will equate to a current grade C will provide a crucial bridge between the new and old systems that will have to co-exist as the reformed qualifications are gradually phased in.

Teachers will need that reference point to have some idea of how to predict pupil performance and set expectations under the new regime. But much else will else change – with six grades available to differentiate between candidates at grade C/4 or above, compared to the current four.

That will help to meet education secretary, Michael Gove’s desire for "explicitly harder" qualifications and will accompany the “more challenging” content already released.

The new grade 5 is expected to be another way of meeting that goal, along with Mr Gove’s requirement that the increase in demand must “reflect that of high-performing jurisdictions”.

Ofqual says it wants the grade to be “internationally benchmarked” to “meet the government’s policy aim that there should be an increase in demand at the level of what is widely considered to be a pass”

“The performance at that grade should correspond, so far as possible, to performance in high-performing countries,” the consultation adds.

The regulator plans to use a Department for Education evaluation of the pupil performance in Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment) for its international benchmarking.

On that basis it proposes that: “The standard of performance required for a grade 5 should be at about that implied by the international statistics… about a half to two-thirds higher than that required for a current grade C.”

But critics are already questioning the method. Mr Lightman said that Pisa was a “completely different assessment” and that Ofqual was not comparing “like with like”.

The regulator has suggested that the new grade 7 should be set to match against the grade A standard for the last year of the old GCSEs, assuming the ability of the cohort is the same.

“Alternatively, or additionally, we could set the grade 9 boundary so that half of the percentage of students previously awarded an A* in a subject is awarded a grade 9,” its consultation adds. “This would make the standard of performance required for the award of a grade 9 really exceptional.”

At the bottom end of the scale, Ofqual is proposing that a grade 1 will be awarded to the same proportion of candidates who currently achieve a grade F or G.


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