GCSE grade confusion remains

Written by: Ian Toone | Published:

As we prepare for the first numerical GCSE grades, Ian Toone is concerned that there is still too much confusion over the new system

Education secretary Justine Greening’s letter to the Education Select Committee, attempting to clarify which of the new 9 to 1 GCSE grades constitutes a pass, seems to have triggered even more confusion and controversy.

If I’ve understood it correctly, a grade 4 is a standard pass, with which candidates should be content as, if achieved in English and maths, it means that they won’t need to retake these post-16 and it should enable them to cross the threshold into further study or employment in the same way that the former C grade facilitated such transitions.

However, for school accountability purposes, a grade 4 will not be good enough; instead, a grade 5 (a “strong pass”) will be needed, at least in EBacc subjects, to show that a school is meeting government expectations. This denigrates the value of a grade 4. Already, we are seeing some universities asking for grade 5, or even 6, for entry to some courses.

Furthermore, many high-achieving students are perfectionists and, whereas in the past they might have realistically expected to achieve a clean sweep of A* grades, under the new system it will be much more difficult to achieve straight 9s across the board. This will, undoubtedly, add more stress to what is already a very stressful period and it is quite conceivable that some students will experience mental health difficulties.

And how are those with grades 1 to 3 supposed to feel? It must not be forgotten that these grades will still represent creditable awards for the large numbers of students who are below average ability in terms of their general academic skills. It is nonsense to think that everyone can be above average, so attainment needs to be appropriately differentiated. Unfortunately, by reducing the number of grades available to differentiate the attainment of lower performing candidates, the new system gives the impression that achievements at this level are less worthy. This does little to boost the self-esteem of those who are already likely to be more vulnerable and less confident.

One of the main reasons for the change in GCSE grading is to facilitate commensurability with international performance measures, such as PISA.

The new grade 5 is supposed to be equivalent to the standard benchmark found in high-performing jurisdictions. This is one reason why Northern Ireland is introducing a C* at GCSE.

However, in England, Ofqual has been working very hard over recent years to ensure that the standard C grade meets international comparability benchmarks. This is why we now have more demanding exams in the sciences, tougher grade boundaries in maths, less reliance on teacher assessment and non-exam assessment, and greater literacy requirements in a range of GCSEs (including history, geography and religious studies).

The effects of such measures meant that GCSE results in 2013 showed a fall at every grade boundary for the first time in its 26-year history, and Ofqual’s imposition of “comparable outcomes” has ensured that GCSE outcomes have flatlined ever since.

So, if the C grade has already been recalibrated, realigned and generally made more rigorous and robust, why does it require further interference?

At one time, the GCSE qualifications system was internationally respected, and experienced teachers could recognise a C grade standard of performance. Now, even the most experienced teachers can no longer predict their students’ achievements with confidence as it no longer seems clear what any particular grade means in terms of what students know, understand or can do.

Is anyone convinced that the new grading system will assuage the very strong emotions which continue to be felt by all those teachers and students whose strenuous efforts to achieve all that has been asked of them have been thwarted by capricious changes to a system which was once regarded as solid and reliable?


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