Have GCSE exams got easier?

Have GCSE exams got easier? Every year, we learn that higher numbers of children have gained 5 GCSEs or that there are more A-grades than ever before. Politicians and the odd Head Teacher come blinking into the light to say “no, it’s because of the wonderful educational policies of this government, the rising quality of teaching and the fact that kids are working harder than ever before (delete as appropriate). Of course the exams aren’t easier!”.

Meanwhile the general public and anyone without a vested interest remain convinced that exams have got easier.

The truth is that some GCSE exams are easier and some harder, but this hardly matters as far as results are concerned. Grades are entirely dependent on where grade boundaries are set. You can set the boundary between an A-grade and a B-grade at 99% so that almost no one gets an A-grade. Or you can set the boundary at 10% of the overall marks and, lo and behold, almost everyone gets an A-grade. It doesn’t mean the exams have got easier or harder.

Decisions about GCSE (and A-level)  grade boundaries are entirely arbitrary, no matter what anyone says. Because the government has annexed almost total control of the system and exam boards must do their bidding if they are to survive, those decisions have been about one thing and one thing only, politics. Each government wants to convince us  that it is doing a good job with the educational system and that standards are rising.  So grade-boundaries are massaged, long after the papers have been marked, to achieve the impression that standards have risen. This is the simple cause of the grade “inflation” which has afflicted our educational system for decades.

The consequence is that today’s results simply cannot be compared effectively with results from ten or twenty years ago. Without detailed scrutiny of a long series of grade-boundary decisions it is impossible to be certain, but it is possible that eight grade-A’s at GCSE today is the equivalent of four grade-A’s a few years ago – but no one knows for sure.  It’s possible that students today really do work harder than we did (although one doubts it!), but there is no evidence at all (at least, in the rising grades) that this is the case.

It is rare that the internal processes of massaging the grade-boundaries are made public. This weekend, long after the event, we learn of government intervention through Ofqual to quell the “excessive” rise in science grades last year, but we can be sure that there are plenty of other interventions. Most of the time the exam boards make the adjustments quietly behind the scenes and no more is said.

As long as we judge governments by the  grades that children are awarded, this situation is unlikely to change.  Only if we move to qualifications outside government control, like IGCSE, is there a theoretical chance to maintain comparability between the C-grade of today and the C-grade of 10 years ago or the C-grade in 2020.  But even there, grade-boundaries still have to be set and there are numerous incentives to show a gradual “improvement” in student achievement, so there are no easy answers to this conundrum.

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