Four and a half things you need to know about new GCSE grades

Last week I had a dream that I was explaining the new GCSE number grades to a class of year 11s. No matter how many times I explained it, they kept saying ‘so 1 is the top grade, right miss? And 3 is a good pass? And if I get 25 marks I am guaranteed a grade 3?’

Here are the four and a half things I think you need to know about the new GCSE number grades

ONE: The new grading system will provide more information than the old one
When I taught in the 6th form, I felt that there were lots of pupils who had received the same grade in their English GCSE but who nevertheless coped very differently with the academic challenge of A-level. There are lots of reasons for this, but I think one is that grades C and B in particular are awarded to so many pupils. Nearly 30% of pupils receive a grade C in English and Maths, and there are clearly big differences between a pupil at the top of that grade and one at the bottom. With the new system, it looks as though the most common grade will be a 4, which only about 20% of pupils will get. With the old letter system, things had got a bit lop-sided: half the grades available were used to distinguish the top two-thirds of candidates.  In the new system, two-thirds of the available grades will be awarded to the top two-thirds of candidates, which is fairer, provides more information, and will help 6th forms and employers distinguish between candidates.

TWO: We don’t know what the grade boundaries will be.
Even with an established specification, it is really hard to predict in advance the relative difficulty of different questions, which is why grade boundaries can never be set in advance. This is even more the case with a new specification. We just don’t know how many marks will be needed to get a certain grade.

THREE: We do know roughly what the grade distribution will be like
Whilst we don’t know the number of marks needed to get a certain grade, we do know how many pupils will get a grade 4 and above (70%), and how many will get a grade 7 and above (16% in English, 20% in Maths). The new 4 grade is linked to the old C grade, and the new 7 to the old A. I’ve heard some people say that the new standards are a ‘complete unknown’. This isn’t the case. We know a lot about where the new standards will be, and this approach lets us know a lot more than other approaches which could have been taken (see below).

FOUR: There’s an ‘ethical imperative’ behind this process
The ‘ethical imperative’ is the idea that no pupil will be disadvantaged by the fact that they were the first to take these new exams. (See page 16-17 here). That’s why Ofqual have created a link between the last year of letter grades, and the first year of number grades. Suppose these new specs really are so fiendishly hard that all the pupils struggle dramatically on them. 70% of pupils will still get a grade 4+. They are not going to be disadvantaged by the introduction of new and harder exams.

AND A HALF: Secondary teachers: if you don’t like this approach, just talk to a primary colleague about what they went through last year!
At Ark, I’ve been involved with the changes to Sats that happened last year, and the changes to GCSE grading that are happening this year. There was no ‘ethical imperative’ at primary last year, meaning we didn’t know until the results were published what the standard would be. Whereas we know in advance with the new GCSE that about 70% of pupils will get a 4 or above, at primary we were left wondering if 80% would pass, if 60% would, or if 20% would! We didn’t have a clue! In the event, the standard for reading fell sharply compared to previous years. Not only did this lead to a very stressful year for primary teachers, it also means that it is extremely hard to compare results year on year from before and after 2016. One might argue that this matters less at primary as pupils do not take the results with them in life and get compared to pupils from previous years. But of course, the results of schools are compared over time, and a great deal depends on these comparisons. So I think an ethical imperative would have been welcome at primary too, and that the new GCSE grades have been designed in the fairest possible way for both schools and pupils.

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