24 August 2023

There may be fewer top GCSE grades this year, but that doesn’t mean that standards are lower

By Tim Clark

It’s GCSE results day and the headlines are dominated by news of a ‘drop’ in top grades. But what do examination grades actually mean? Do they mean that students have reached a certain standard or are they a ranking of how a student compares to their peers? The answer in England is a bit of each.

There are two basic ways of grading students and our GCSE and A Levels currently fall between both. One approach is to rank pupils in order of performance, so called ‘norm referencing’ and, regardless of the standards reached, to award the top percentage of performers an A* (or a 9 at GCSE), the next group a A and so on. At A Level during the 1970’s and 1980’s, for example, around the top 10% of students were awarded A grades, the next 15% awarded B grades, and the next 10% awarded C grades. This system, if adopted consistently year-on-year, has its merits, not least because employers and universities know that any student who scored an A* for instance, would be within the top, say, 10% of students of that year group. Cohorts obviously vary in ability, but across the country, such a system would avoid the grade inflation that we have seen in recent years. 

The second approach is to grade students according to what they prove they can do in their assessments – ‘criterion reference marking’. This means that students are given marks for fulfilling certain criteria, be it knowledge, skills or understanding, regardless of how many other students succeed or fail in the same tasks. The advantage of this system is that employers and universities know that a student who scores a certain grade will be capable of certain academic feats and possess a certain level of knowledge and skills. The downside is that there is no consistency from year to year – it is possible (but implausible) that one year hardly any students get an A*. 

This year, the big headache for Ofqual is to try to return the grading system to some sort of normality following the tremendous disruption of Covid. Cancelling exams during the pandemic revealed the major drawbacks of teacher assessment – grade inflation and a lack of consistency from one school or part of the country to the next. Clearly, a system which saw almost 45% of students scoring top grades – as they did in 2020 and 2021 – had to change. Grades must mean something and if an assessment system cannot distinguish between almost half the ability range, then it is clearly not fit for purpose. 

Ofqual has announced that, ‘There has been a return to pre-pandemic grading this summer in England with protection in place for students’. What this means is that there has been an end to the grade inflation of the pandemic years (this reversal started last year) but equally, that because of the disruption caused by Covid, allowances were made so that, ‘A student who would have secured a particular grade in 2019 would be just as likely to achieve that same grade this year’. This seems eminently fair, but it’s worth noting that even with the reduced number of top grades this year, 26.5% of A Level results were still graded either A* or A, compared to only 11/12% in the 1980’s. This significant difference is purely the consequence of statistical decisions, not of academic standards or student achievement.

At the other end of the grade scale, today’s GCSE results have again seen 32% ‘fail’ to achieve a grade 4 or better, again similar to 2019 levels. What is the use or purpose of this? For able and successful students, good results open gates to the next level, but what of those who are not successful? No doubt many of the latter will now move on to post-16 vocational and technical courses, but how is parity of esteem ever to be achieved for these crucially important courses when students can only access them after having ‘failed’ in more traditional academic courses? A system which regularly fails one third of 16 year olds – not because they have failed to acquire certain knowledge, understanding or skills, but because of a statistical decision made in Whitehall – cannot be said to be providing less academic young people with a grounding in practical and technical subjects which are so crucial for the country’s future. 

This year’s results have also led to some uncomfortable observations. Sir Peter Lampl of the Sutton Trust and Education Endowment Foundation has said that the overall picture of this year’s A Levels is, ‘One of growing disparity… There are significant regional differences in attainment with top grades falling most in the north east while they have increased most in London and the south east, in line with patterns of regional prosperity’. There was an 8% gap between students attaining A*/A in the south east compared to those in the north east. Independent schools also widened the gap with the state sector as their proportion of top grades increased by 2.6 percentage points on 2019 levels to 47.4%. Pertinent questions must and will be asked about levelling up, about the impact of the cost of living crisis on education standards, about the effectiveness of the National Tutoring programme and the growing post-pandemic issue of persistent absence, which sees 24% of all pupils missing 10% or more of school.

Examinations, assessments and results have an important role to play in our education system. We must be clear, however, precisely what we want those examinations to achieve. Obviously, we want to reward those who work hard, to identify talent and aptitude as well as to help prepare young people for the next appropriate stage in their development. Exams must, therefore, clearly differentiate between students who perform at different levels. They are also a very powerful tool for motivating students and teachers (although they can also be a very powerful demotivator for those who struggle). But can we honestly say that as the system stands, it achieves these goals?

I would certainly never argue for a ‘prizes for all’ approach but – on the contrary, I believe strongly that we can achieve higher standards by acknowledging that one size does not fit all and that a wider variety of exams, assessments and subject courses could result in our education system producing a better, more successful and more appropriately educated future population.

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Tim Clark was a secondary school Head for 18 years. He now runs a consultancy specialising in school improvement.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.