GCSEs: What does an ‘A’ grade mean?

Chart showing the percentage of students taking a subject at GCSE in 2012 that achieved an A or A* grade. Click for a larger version. Notice that only 3.1% of students achieved an A* in ‘Home Economics’ while 5.5% of students achieved an A* in ‘Mathematics’. What does that mean?

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.

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11 Responses to “GCSEs: What does an ‘A’ grade mean?”

1. Edmond Hui Says:

Love your hybrid solution. It’s like successfully having capitalists and communists coexist in the same population. It recognises on a practical and pragmatic level that at the elite end it matters more that you are elite, while at the journeyman level it matters more that you have achieved a level of competence. As an employer if you’re looking for elite recruits you want to know they are outstanding amongst their peers, while if you’re looking for mass recruitment you already know that the Bs and Cs are from the bulk of the population, you just need to know they’ve successfully studied the subject. Bravo.

The authorities’ current confusion comes from wanting to measure both at once for all candidates, which is a bit like trying to combine capitalism and communism in the same political philosophy and hoping that the entire population votes for it.

2. Julian Onions (@julianonions) Says:

Looking at edge cases, what happens if only one person takes an exam. Or two? How many takers do you need before you can judge 5%? What if everyone fails, do the top 5% get A*?

• protonsforbreakfast Says:

The cohort sizes for the data I showed ranged from a few hundred to a few hundred thousand. I would think a few hundred candidates is enough to get meaningful statistics on a exam. If everyone ‘fails’ then the exam was too hard and so yes – the best 5% would get A*. This allows colleges and employers who was the best at a particular exam.

3. Dave Says:

What would happen with, for example, Maths and Additional Maths where the intakes are likely to be different in ability? I’m assuming the difference in the table is because only those good at Maths do the Additional as a GCSE.With your system you could have a B in Additional Maths being harder to get than an A in Maths. You would have to grade the actual GCSEs themselves, some being better than others.

• teddnet Says:

I don’t see a problem with that. ‘Additional’ would then imply some additional knowledge / ability. The anomaly would be if you could get a C in maths and an A* in add maths.

4. Dave Says:

teddnet – if GCSEs do not have similar intrinsic worth, then don’t all the statistics and 5 A*-C ratings become (more) meaningless?
It is bad enough at the moment where, for example, at my children’s school if you are judged able enough you can do Physics, Biology and Chemistry as threes gcses, if judged less able then you can do Combined Science which counts as two gcses, and if you are not judged able to do that you can do a BTEC which is claimed to be worth four gcses! Under Michael’s proposed scheme you could probably increase your (personal or school’s) A/A* count by switching from Classics to Leisure and Tourism. Since no-one, I suggest, really thinks the statistics are showing that Classics is easier than L&T, rather than which pupils in which schools are being entered for the exam, discrimmination of the most able might tend to the fee paying school+classics+oxbridge ethos.

If you mean we could have an extra layer with “Additional” being recognised as a higher grade qualification than GCSE that would be fine. Just don’t call it a GCSE!

• teddnet Says:

The personal ramifications of the systems are too complex for me. It would be a huge start if you could truly understand what a GCSE in ANY subject really meant, which is more than can be said at the moment for English, in which we don’t know how much the candidate knew, and we don’t know how well they did against their cohorts. In fact we know nothing about those results with any confidence. In the old days, I believe (someone correct me) that O level meant what an ordinary adult could be expected to achieve in a year of study. If maths is 1 year, and additional maths is 1 year, then someone who did both simultaneously for 1 year is likely to be better at maths than someone who did only the vanilla qualification. Whether Add maths should then be seen as being worth the same is sort of moot- I can’t see how one could be expected to get a high grade in add maths and a low grade in maths, so clearly there will be some distinctiveness about the worth of these subjects.

5. Bernard Naylor Says:

If the school leaving age is really to be raised to 18 – isn’t that still the intention? – surely the best option is to abolish GCSEs altogether? British young people are over-examined as it is. Finland – so I understand – makes do with one public examination at school leaving age, and they are said to have the best education system in the world. Along with that, school league tables should be abolished, and there should be a single, unified examining body, instead of the present system of various examining bodies. Perhaps if the system is simplified along those lines, minds could be bent towards ensuring that the one public examination, set and examined by one body, serves the purposes required of it.

• protonsforbreakfast Says:

Good points all.
1. I read about foreign systems being better than ours with suspicion (Grass: Greener: Other side). If the Finnish system is so much better than ours but there are fewer examinations, how do they know its better?
2. League Table Abolition: Yes please
3. Unified examining body: absolutely essential.

I think one of the main problems with our education system is that people keep trying to fix it! Every Government wants radical change. This does some good things but breaks other = parts of the system that were doing OK. Actually we just need to stop changing things and let the school system evolve slowly. Teachers and parents are weary of radical change.

M

• Bernard Naylor Says:

I guess the answer to your comment 1 is that there is only one point of comparison that matters, namely the level they have reached when they finish full-time school education. And that is examined and is, I assume, the basis of the international comparisons which,so I read, repeatedly confirm the superior quality of the Finnish education system. Any interim measure is without value if you have confidence in your system. E.g. the Finns don’t start formal education until aged 7. And we are already measuring by then. But what’s the point of measuring our children against the Finns at 7, if the next 11 years confirm that in the long run the Finnish children do better? I think it is widely acknowledged that public examinations are usually detrimental to good education, because they inevitably lead to ‘teaching to the defined curriculum’, which, since it has to be defined, is most commonly narrower than is required for the best education. The frequency of public testing of children in the UK could well be one of the reasons why our children don’t do as well as we would wish. Public examinations are a ‘necessary evil’, and as such should be kept to the absolutely indispensable minimum.
Finland, so I read, selects its teachers with great care (no unqualified teachers, no ex-army officers etc), takes great care over continuing professional education and practice guidance, and pays them really well. And, incidentally, they decided to abolish private education some years ago because of the detrimental effect it was having on education overall. (Sounds familiar?)

6. teddnet Says:

Latest news about the Welsh results getting regraded while the English stays the same confirms what my Welsh wife has always told me- that the Welsh clearly have a better command of English than the English do…