Schoolzone blog: GCSE grumblings, rumblings and rumours

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12 Jan 2015

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Thare have been some concerns raised about Ofqual’s proposal to introduce stricter limits on rising GCSE grades and the effect this will have on Ofsted inspections.

Schools want their exam grades to go up every year; universities and employers want them to stay the same. It's the same in other industries: producers want their performance to improve, consumers don't want prices to increase. The difference is that competition drives prices, but there is no real equivalent for exam grades. We are stuck with what we have.

In future there will be a standardised reference test to monitor grade inflation, but there are many concerns that this sounds like a better idea than it will be, for example, one exam board official has told TES: “The notion that we can produce a reference test that is infallible is a bit of a fairy story, really.”

Initially, the dream for the GCSE was that it would be criterion-referenced: giving credit to childern for what they can do, and based on teacher judgement. However, the former proved unworkable and the latter unreliable, so norn-referencing (based on stats) has gradually come to take over - even more so with the removal of coursework. However, teachers have come to rely on grade descriptors so that they can see what progress children are making compared to those in other schools - these are now available for English Lit, Lang and maths, but there are rumours that Ofqual is considering not using them in future.

The only answer is to keep the grades constant so that universities and employers can use them (else why have them at all) but to change the way schools measure performance so that even with norm-referenced grades, schools can still show improvement. After all, schools want to show an improvement relative to other schools: grade inflation is only one confounding factor - there's also differences between specs, exam content, marking, moderation and so on.

The DfE have been making rumblings recently about having a single awarding body - an idea rejected, ultimately, by Gove - so that many of these factors should be removed. When we asked teachers about this idea last year, they were generally in favour because it would result in a fairer assessment system and we were surprised that it was one of Gove's suggested reforms that didn't make the cut.

Meanwhile, our only answer is already underway: the new Progress 8 measure (P8) means that schools will be judged on how much progress their students make, compared to the average for other schools, so it won't any longer be a matter of percentage of students getting a particular grade. This is significant, because it means that grades can be norm-referenced “comparable outcomes” (to please universities and employers) but schools can demonstrate progress reliably (assuming KS2 SATs are reliable).

So, in P8, it becomes even more important that awarding bodies are equivalent (or indeed unified), in order that the basis for measuring progress (a more complicated process than %A* to C) is valid.

The answer seems to be:

  • Make awarding bodies truly equivalent - in which case, why not jut have one (for each subject)
  • Measure progress from KS2 and compare schools on a like for like basis to facilitate comparison
  • Ask Ofsted (and hence parents and everyone else) to judge schools on comparative progress, P8

Two out of three of these recommendations are already in play, so we might actually be able to accommodate the needs of parents, schools, universities and employers one day... quite soon ...?




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