An exam board’s attempt to compensate for grading that it now admits was too “lenient” has left thousands of pupils with crucial results that “cannot be trusted”, a report released today claims.
Analysis by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) and the Girls’ Schools Association (GSA), which represent leading independent schools, says that there is “overwhelming evidence” of a “major problem” in the grading of the English language IGCSE qualification run by the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE) board.
The board decided in June 2015 to “tighten standards” for the papers taken last summer, after research it carried out found its grading of the 2014 paper had been too “lenient”.
It has acknowledged that, for the IGCSE English language qualification taken by 17,000 independent school pupils last year, this led to 9 per cent of schools having “markedly worse” numbers of A grades than in 2014.
There are also concerns about 194,000 mainly state school pupils who took a different version of the qualification that used the same exam papers with the same grade boundaries. The Association of School and College Leaders said that several thousand candidates from the maintained sector had also received lower-than-expected grades.
State school entries for IGCSE English rose by more than 80 per cent. The author of the HMC report believes that a perception the qualification represented an “easier” option may have had a knock-on effect on independent sector results.
The report examines data from almost 5,000 pupils at 53 independent schools that were concerned about their 2015 results. It finds that their results on one of the qualification’s two papers – worth half of the overall marks – were “completely out of line with the abilities of the candidates”.
Just 27.4 per cent of pupils scored an A* in the qualification, in contrast with the 49.7 per cent scoring an A* in English literature exams and 49.9 per cent in history exams.
More than 200 pupils were given U grades on one paper, the report notes, adding that many “would never have achieved less than [an] A grade in any examination they had ever taken”.
But CIE insists that its grading processes were “thorough and robust” and that the results awarded were fair. It said that raising the grade boundaries was a “routine minor adjustment” rather than a “sudden change”.
The board and Ofqual have both accused the HMC of basing its research on an unrepresentative sample of schools that were unhappy with their results.
Seen as ‘an easier option’
Peter Mason, the former senior examiner, who wrote the HMC report, told TES that he thought the significant increase in entries for the qualification – from 122,000 in June 2014 to 212,000 in June 2015 – was because state schools were “picking up vibes” that it was a “more accessible” way for students to gain a C.
CIE’s figures show many of the entries from state schools were from pupils working at the C/D borderline.
Dr Mason said: “The lingering suspicion must be that [CIE] had pressure on them [to set tougher grade boundaries] because there was a fear that the IGCSE was being seen as an easier option for schools [and students] to get a C or better.”
Headteachers warned that the lower-than-expected grades could hinder students’ university and career prospects because the most competitive courses only accepted initial results rather than any resits.
Roderic Gillespie, CIE’s director of assessment, said: “If there are children that are unhappy that’s unfortunate and I can empathise with those students. But I have to make sure [awarding] is fair to all candidates. It’s been a very robust, thorough process.”
He said that the HMC report was based on a “self-selecting group of schools that were unhappy” and that was not representative of the national picture.
Mr Gillespie added that CIE did not come under pressure to tighten grades. “We are confident that the standard is correct and aligned with GCSEs,” he said.
The HMC and GSA are calling for a review of the grades awarded. But Mr Gillespie said: “For me to change anything, I need robust evidence. There’s absolutely no robust evidence here.”
An Ofqual spokesman said that its own research has found the grade boundaries to be “suitable”. “It is unreasonable for any study to make assertions about an entire cohort of students based on the results of an unrepresentative subset of schools,” he said.
A Department for Education source said that the controversy appeared to vindicate the government’s decision to gradually remove IGCSEs from school league tables.
This is an article from the 15 April edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here