The percentage of students being awarded A and A* grades at GCSE has fallen for the first time in 25 years. In my opinion this is a good thing, but as the furore over the re-alignment of grades for the English GCSEs makes clear, it heralds several years of pain as exam marking slowly returns to reality.
What these painful events demonstrate is that we need to be clear about what a particular mark signifies. At the moment this is almost impossible to guess.
The chart at the top of the page shows the percentage of the cohort that take an exam in various subjects that get an A or A*. The Guardian DATA blog has discussed the data and the data itself can be found here (as a Google Docs spreadsheet). It is worth clicking on the figure at the top of the page to enlarge it, but in case you are too busy, let me highlight two of the odd statistics it shows up.
- Only 3.1% of students achieved an A* in Home Economics while 5.5% of students achieved an A* in Mathematics.
Does that mean that an A* in Home Economics is harder to get than an A* in Mathematics?
- 95.5% of students achieved an A or A* in Classical Subjects (i.e. Greek or Latin)
Does that mean that Classical Subjects are easy?
In each case the answer is confusing and all that the designations indicate is that for each subject A* is better than A, A is better than B etc.. I trust my readers to appreciate the subtlety of interpretation required to understand the data, But is clear from the spread that there is neither an absolute nor a relative meaning to the designation.
We need to recognise that exams perform two quite distinct functions. The first is to discriminate amongst students, and the second is to determine who has reached an acceptable level of education in a particular topic. The first is easy, and ‘when I was a lad’ was all that was used. The second is harder, and its mis-implementation has lead to rampant grade inflation over the last 25 years.
The solution is to have clear definitions of what the grades mean. Allow me to suggest the following:
- A*: the top 5% of the cohort taking the exam.
- A: the next 10% of the cohort
- B: Good pass:
- C: Pass
Grades A and A* would be inflation-proof measures that allowed employers and colleges to discriminate amongst the students. Grades B and C would allow employers and colleges to select people that had a good or basic understanding of a subject. This structure combines the two functions of an exam.
This year my eldest son took GCSE exams and he did well. But as his results were announced I was reminded of the personal dramas of each of the half-a-million candidates. The chaos of the current scheme undermines the achievements of many students while failing to highlight areas where as a nation we need to improve. We owe it to ourselves and our children to make the results of the students work mean something that will not change from year to year.
Tags: GCSE 2012