Most people in education know that Ofqual is responsible for setting and maintaining standards in GCSEs and A levels in England. But how we achieve that is probably less well understood. And fewer still could probably provide evidence to say that an alternative system would be "better" than ours. Exploring the systems used for setting standards across the world proves this.
Over the past few years, we've looked at the diversity of approaches used in curriculum-related exam systems post-16 in nine countries – Australia, Chile, England, France, Georgia, Ireland, South Africa, Sweden, and the United States. Our findings will be published in a new book – Examination standards: how measures & meanings differ around the world – which is part of a collaborative project we have with Jo-Anne Baird from the University of Oxford, Lena Gray from AQA and Tina Isaacs from London’s UCL Institute of Education.
Most standard-setting processes use both statistics and examiner judgement, but exactly how different sources of information are used in the decisions that determine student grades varies widely. Globalisation has begun to impinge on examination systems, but examination standards are still largely a bastion of the local.
In England, much of the focus on GCSE and A-level standards some years ago was because of concerns about whether the increase over time in the proportion of top grades awarded was caused by grade inflation – increases that do not reflect a genuine improvement in the attainment of student cohorts. If there is grade inflation, that raises questions about the efficacy of the system used to set standards in these examinations.
Exam systems: tackling grade inflation
It was hard to find objective evidence to prove or disprove the notion of grade inflation. Certainly, many doubted that any improvements in genuine attainment brought about by better teaching and learning could fully explain changes that doubled the proportion of A grades in both GCSE and A level in the 20 years from around 1990. The published qualitative reviews of standards, started by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) and continued by Ofqual in its early years, that investigated standards over time mostly provided reassuring messages about maintenance. They appeared at odds though with much-quoted statistical data from Durham University that showed that, as the years passed, students of a particular ability were gaining better and better A-level grades.
Certainly, when examination results were released each August, the stories in the press about the maintenance of standards were typically negative. That climate led to the creation of Ofqual.
When Ofqual became operational, one of its top initial objectives was setting standards in new syllabuses as they came to be examined for the first time. These were the new AS exams in summer 2009, new A levels in summer 2010 and new GCSEs in summer 2011. To help achieve that objective, Ofqual and the exam boards began using the approach of "comparable outcomes" to award qualifications. This approach is based on the following principles:
- That a similar cohort of candidates will achieve a similar profile of results; and
- That, all other things being equal, a candidate of a certain level of attainment should achieve the same result, regardless of year of entry or which examination board they took.
Since GCSE and A-level awarding has been based on comparable outcomes, it has helped to keep aligned grade standards between exam boards and there has been little change from year to year in the overall proportions of candidates achieving the higher grades. While the situation in England seems relatively stable at present, other countries seem to have more serious issues about standards to deal with.
In France, around 80 per cent of 18-year-olds sit some form of the baccalauréat, for which the pass rate is around 90 per cent. And yet, the national examination and university entrance system mask a separate, more elitist system, found in the grandes écoles – higher education establishments that are outside the main framework of the French public university system.
Students wanting to attend the grandes écoles are chosen after two years of highly competitive preparatory courses; admission does not rely on baccalauréat outcomes, although applicants are asked to obtain one. Those who pass the baccalauréat are eligible to attend any public university in the subject of their choosing, but not to enter the elite further training courses.
However, students’ failure rate in the first two years of higher education is high, which has caused some consternation. Indeed, the French government announced reforms to the baccalauréat in January 2018 that address some of the criticisms that have been made.
Georgia is rather different. Here, universities accept students on to their programmes who are not university-ready, in part because universities are dependent on tuition fees to survive. School accountability measures do not include student performance. In the face of these challenges, there is little incentive to introduce rigorous and discriminating standard-setting procedures or to make the examination system transparent to stakeholders. The university entrance examinations are both valued and trusted by the teaching profession and the public at large, perhaps more a testament to the corrupt system they replaced 10 years ago than a full vote of confidence in the examinations themselves.
So, there are some challenges with both these systems, but is any other system studied "better" than ours? There’s much more detail in the book, but we would argue not.
That doesn’t mean improvements can’t be made to GCSE and A-level awarding, and that is something we are constantly seeking to deliver. However, what we can say is that our research into standard setting across the world leads us to believe that our current system is as good as any.
Dennis Opposs is Ofqual’s standards chair