The man overseeing England's biggest exam board cast further doubt on the validity of the past decade's grade increases this week, as the qualifications watchdog announced a review of the GCSE "brand".
In a candid TES interview, Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, which owns Edexcel, said that exam boards should be "worried about" the discrepancy between 10 years of rising A-level and GCSE results and England's failure to achieve better scores on international benchmarks.
His comments came as Ofqual today said that it would consider changing the GCSE grading structure, reducing the number of subjects available, and would compare it with its international counterparts.
The regulator has revealed its intention in the wake of growing concerns about the exam system, prompted by revelations that inside information had been offered to teachers during exam board seminars. It warned that "we sometimes see a focus on qualifications or grades at the expense of true learning".
Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that GCSEs were introduced for pupils of all abilities. If lower grades are removed, they would need to be replaced with an alternative for less able pupils, he said.
But he warned: "We should first of all be considering what the purpose of an externally assessed qualification for 16-year-olds should be when we have raised the compulsory participation age to 18."
Mr Bristow was speaking after the launch of a Pearson report on standards where an academic expert in assessment warned that the exam system was at a "toxic low point" and a long-serving former senior examiner claimed that the system was running out of experienced experts.
The report, with recommendations that include more training for examiners, comes just a fortnight after Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey said that A levels and GCSEs had suffered "persistent grade inflation" for "at least a decade".
This week, the watchdog also used its corporate plan to announce a review of the quality of A-level and GCSE marking, following an error-strewn summer exam season.
Mr Bristow admitted that examiners need to be more professional. "We have got to up our game," he said, speaking before Ofqual published its plan. "We have got to increase the level of professionalism in everything we do and I think the role of examiners is an area that we haven't really given the attention to that we need to."
The Edexcel head stopped short of agreeing that there had been grade inflation, arguing that it was hard to disentangle it from other changes. But he told TES: "We have seen improvements in grades in GCSEs and A levels in the past 10 years that is indisputable. We have not seen increases in our performance on international benchmarks, nothing to do with rankings - the actual scores haven't improved. That must tell you that there is an issue we need to look at, to be worried about."
Pearson's Leading on Standards report calls for more "rounded learning" with less of a focus on exams. It recommends a cap on the number of GCSEs each pupil can take, devising an independent "validation" of 18-year-olds' skills separate from formal exams and - as ordered by the government - working with universities to create a "new generation of A levels".
Robert Coe from Durham University welcomed much of the report, saying that there was currently a "mismatch" between what A levels and GCSEs rewarded and what people actually wanted from education. "My view is that we are at a really low point here," the assessment expert said. He argued that the exams and the current school accountability system had created "a very toxic combination".
The academic is now working with Pearson and the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors to develop more training for Edexcel examiners and classroom teachers who want to improve their assessment expertise.
Professor Coe said that increasing examiners' skills was "a real problem because of the scale of the qualification system and . how thinly the expertise that we have is spread".
Martin Collier, an Edexcel A-level history examiner between 1996 and 2011, agreed. "There were, 10 to 15 years ago, a lot of very highly professional examiners with a lot of experience," the head of the independent St John's school in Leatherhead, Surrey, said. "I think a fair number of those have now left the system. There are not too many of them left."
Mr Bristow denied a loss of expertise but said: "I do think, though, that as there is much more pressure on the system now than there has ever been, we have got to have a greater degree of professionalisation. That is absolutely critical."
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT
- Ofqual is to compare and review both GCSEs and key stage 2 national tests with their counterparts in other countries.
- A wider review of the GCSE "brand" will examine whether the exams should have a grading structure that stretches from A* to G.
- The watchdog is also concerned that, while most people think GCSEs just cover academic areas, they are actually available in more than 70 subjects. "We think that this range of GCSE subjects devalues the GCSE brand and we intend to develop brand guidelines for GCSEs," Ofqual said today.
- Changes to the exams would be introduced from 2015 in time to link up with a new national curriculum expected from September 2014.
Original headline: World rankings and rising results don't add up, says exam boss