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Pisa should help set new GCSE standards, says exam board director


A senior figure in one of England’s main exam boards has called for official talks with the producers of the world's leading education rankings on how to set new GCSEs to international standards.

Ensuring that the reformed exams will have “an increase in demand, to reflect that of high-performing jurisdictions” is a government requirement for the revised GCSEs being introduced next year.

But Ofqual, the exams regulator, which is responsible for setting the standard on the reformed GCSEs, has already admitted that: “There is no international standard that we can benchmark to.

Now Tim Oates, director of research at Cambridge Assessment, believes that staff from the OECD, who run Pisa (the Programme for International Student Assessment), could provide the answer.

“If we want to do it formally then we ought to have discussions with OECD,” he said. “OECD have some pretty sophisticated processes of equating tests which contained different items [questions], in different national settings.” The OECD has told TES it would be prepared to help.

Ofqual is proposing to use Pisa results to set the standard for the grade 5 in the new GCSEs – expected to equate to a “pass” – but only indirectly.

The watchdog plans to base its answer on a Department for Education (DfE) research paper which attempts to present the gap between England and Pisa’s top performing nations in terms of GCSE grades.

But Mr Oates said it should instead go directly to Pisa’s designers. “If we want to do some pegging we should have a heart-to-heart with OECD,” he told TES.

Teaching unions have argued that the comparison between Pisa and GCSEs is inappropriate because they are very different tests and that the process would not be comparing like with like.

But Mr Oates said: “I am more optimistic about that than most other analysts. I don’t see too many problems in these kind of international comparisons.”

He said his experience as chair of a panel of experts advising the government’s National Curriculum review had shown that pegging England’s education to standards in other countries was possible.

“I know that relates to content standards and not to absolute standards of performance but you can do those kind of comparisons,” he said.

Mr Oates added: “We would be joining the ranks of other countries that have significantly improved their systems. Hong Kong [ranked as one the top three systems by Pisa] does massive amounts of international benchmarking of content and standards and uses it very heavily to monitor and improve its own system.”

An Ofqual spokesperson said: “We really do want to know what people think and we welcome all contributions to our consultation.”

An OECD spokesman said: “If the UK authorities asked us we would surely engage in a discussion with them.”

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