The difference between exam standards and exam grades


GCSE grades have become statistical constructs which are no longer possible for teachers to predict. Brian Lightman warns that this has serious implications.

In his recent speech to a conference at the think-tank Reform, schools minister Nick Gibb was upbeat about the impact of his government’s reforms during the last five years, speaking of a “new vibrancy and excitement in the English education system”.

Certainly, if you look at Ofsted statistics or the chief inspector’s annual reports there is much to celebrate. School leaders and their staff have shown enormous commitment and resilience during an incredibly turbulent period. We are seeing the highest standards of skill and professionalism in our classrooms and much innovative practice – all causes for celebration.

But the $10,000 question is this: Have standards risen? During our autumn programme of meetings and conferences with our members all around the country, GCSE results have been at the top of their concerns. The widely publicised volatility in this year’s results has made it impossible to make year-on-year comparisons. 

Even the RAISEonline statistical first release from the DfE carried this health warning: “It is not possible to make direct comparison between 2013 and 2014 data due to changes in methodology, examinations and behaviour.”

With annual changes to the structure of GCSE assessments, comparisons between years would be like apples and pears. Since the publication of results in August reporters and commentators have been asking us what we think has happened. We have been investigating this in great detail, conducting surveys and speaking to numerous school leaders about their results. There are certainly no simple explanations.

But there is a short answer to that question about standards: we don’t know. One expert summed it up convincingly: “It has been argued that standards have been maintained between years as a result of the ‘comparable outcomes’ methodology. That is not the case. Grade outcomes have been maintained. Standards are something else.”

Standards and grades are not the same thing. Experienced teachers have always been comfortable looking at a student’s work and coming up with a reasonably accurate estimate of its standard in relation to GCSE. This is no longer possible. GCSE grades have become statistical constructs, meaning that teachers are no longer confident in predicting them on the basis of standards of achievement.

I believe this goes some way to explaining why so many grades have been changed on the back of re-marks. If an examiner looks at a student’s work and reassesses it purely on what they have written after the grade boundaries have been set, their decision contradicts the effects of the comparable outcomes methodology. The implications are huge: 

  • Teachers feel de-skilled and lose confidence in their ability to assess accurately.

  • Confidence in the objectivity of the examination is compromised.

  • The public are confused.

  • Employers and further and higher educational institutions struggle to understand what results mean.

  • And most importantly of all, the life chances of young people who are victims of this volatility are affected.

What to do? The most pressing issue is for standards (not grade outcomes) to be absolutely clearly defined from day one for the new GCSEs. We need to know exactly what grades 1 to 9 mean in terms of learning outcomes in each subject. Only then will our teachers be able to prepare young people properly for these examinations and only then will all of those who make use of these results be able to understand what a GCSE grade means. Only then will we know whether standards have risen. 

  • Brian Lightman is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders. Visit



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