Exams watchdog Ofqual is considering a major grading shake-up that would cut the proportion of pupils achieving a crucial “pass” grade in GCSE English by more than a quarter.
Teachers fear the change – which would make it harder to achieve top grades in “easy” subjects (see box, ‘Difficulty of subjects according to Ofqual’, opposite) – could have a “devastating” impact on pupils.
It is one of a series of measures being looked at by the regulator to improve the comparability of grades across GCSE and A-level subjects. Ofqual is also considering rationing top grades for bright pupils in some subjects.
Either solution would come on top of the sweeping reforms to GCSEs and A levels currently being phased in and would represent another earthquake for exams in England.
Moving the goalposts
Paul Clayton, the director of the National Association for the Teaching of English, said: “Students have always had to work hard for good grades in English; and with the introduction of the new GCSEs this year, they will have to work harder still.
“To move the goalposts yet again, in order to achieve some spurious sense of parity with other subjects, may well have catastrophic effects on student motivation.”
Experts within the industry are set to advise Ofqual against further change, TES understands. But the regulator insisted that it needed to look at the issue because schools were offering subjects according to “perceived difficulty”, whereas university admissions “treat most subject grades as interchangeable”.
Under option A (see graphic, ‘Proportion of students awarded A or A*’, right), Ofqual would use a formula to give “hard” subjects more top grades and “easier” subjects, such as English, lower grades. The watchdog found that the proportion of pupils achieving a C grade or above in GCSE English in 2013 would have plummeted from 64 per cent to 46 per cent if this model had been in place at the time.
But Jenny Stevens, a former head of English, regarded by Ofqual as a “subject expert” – told an Ofqual conference last week that the reform “would have a devastating effect”.
Mr Clayton said that schools had already experienced years of “tremendous volatility” in English GCSE grades, with many seeing “inexplicable and unpredictable collapses in the percentage of students attaining C or better”.
He added: “I think, therefore, that most teachers of English would be horrified if, for whatever dubious and specious reasons, some statistical formula were now to be applied that resulted in further turbulence.”
Malcolm Trobe, interim general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (pictured, right), said that a “big drop” in the number of young people who achieved a C grade in English would cause “major concern” and be “unfair” on pupils.
However, he added that it was important to make some changes so that grades in other subjects would be of equivalent value.
Ofqual has proposed an alternative plan that would involve exam boards awarding the same proportion of top grades in every subject (see option B, opposite). But this would effectively ration top grades in subjects that attract the brightest pupils, such as further maths, where 56 per cent of A-level entrants received an A or A* grade last summer.
Any changes would be introduced in the wake of the biggest overhaul of GCSE grading for decades, which will involve A*-G grades being gradually replaced by grades 9 to 1 from next year onwards. The new 5 “pass” grade is already being set at a tougher standard than the current C.
Dennis Opposs, Ofqual’s standards chair, said he was concerned that “real or perceived” subject difficulty could be putting students off taking some subjects and even causing schools to tell students to avoid certain subjects. “If that’s happening, then this is a subject worthy of some attention,” he said.
He went on to say that universities might be offering places to the “wrong students” because they requested a certain set of results regardless of the subjects studied. This would disadvantage students who were taking the hardest subjects, he said.
A third option being considered by the regulator would give students two separate sets of grades (see option C, opposite). One would be calculated in the same way as now, but the other would be adjusted to make all subjects comparable, for use in school performance tables and by universities.
Ofqual will decide if it wants to make changes and which option it favours by September.
Subject experts in physics and languages speaking at last week’s conference said that changes were needed because the severe grading at present was deterring students from choosing their subjects.
But one exams expert told TES it was “crazy” that such a wide-ranging reform was being proposed, adding: “This is not the way to stop migration from physics and languages. It’s yet another major change, and the government has promised stability in GCSEs and A levels.”
Questions about the extent to which different subjects (and outcome grades) in public exams can be treated as comparable have been with us for at least half a century.
This is an “iceberg” issue: apparently straightforward, but with layers of hidden complexity. And there has never been strong consensus among assessment experts.
Nevertheless, we must consider this in the light of education system expectations. We hear anecdotally that the actual or perceived difficulty of one subject relative to another is affecting what schools offer and what students choose.
Expectations also come from universities: except where courses require specific subjects, admissions models typically treat most subject grades as interchangeable. All that this means that it is time to look again at what inter-subject comparability means, what reasonable expectations are and how they can best be met.
At Ofqual we want to adopt an position based on evidence and research, that will also be broadly supported by students and users of qualification outcomes. We hope that this public airing will encourage wide discussion of this complex issue while we continue to take evidence and formulate our position later this year.
Amanda Spielman is chair of Ofqual
The education researcher’s view
It seems unfair that students achieve well over half a grade lower in French GCSE than they do in maths or English. It may affect access to further study and often leads to language teachers being labelled as underperforming.
Ofqual is consulting on this inter-subject comparability and I hope that teachers recognise this debate’s relevance to their work. I have sympathies with those who advocate realigning the grading of GCSEs so that the chances of a candidate getting a grade does not vary so much across academic subjects.
Indeed, it sounds logical to realign GCSE grading to make English harder and French easier, until you reflect on how achievement results from the decisions we make about teaching from age 5 onwards, the quality of teaching instruction, and the interest, aptitude and motivation of those who have chosen to take the subject.
We are considering inter-subject comparability against a background of enormous curriculum change. French teaching quality might well deteriorate as we struggle to find 2,000 extra teachers to deliver the English Baccalaureate.
Should this cause overall French GCSE results to fall, relative to maths and English, thus ensuring consistent grading standards in French over time? Or should we realign the French GCSE to ensure consistent inter-subject grading? No system can do both of these things at once.
Dr Rebecca Allen is director of Education Datalab and a member of Ofqual’s Standards Advisory Group