6 Aug 2012

A level and GCSE examiners told to ration top marks

Exam boards advised to limit the number of A grades to guard against accusations that exams are getting easier, but experts tell Channel 4 News the move may disadvantage hard-working pupils.

 A level and GCSE examiners told to fix results (R)

The exams regulator Ofqual said the move was intended to ensure that a pupil get the same grade regardless of whether they sit a more recent version of an exam paper.

A-level results used to be “norm referenced”, where a fixed percentage of pupils would achieve a certain grade each year. This policy was scrapped in 1987 and the percentage of A grades has risen steadily from 10 per cent to 27 per cent, prompting accusations that exams are getting easier.

Schools are constantly being exhorted to ensure that all students improve. Therefore it hardly seems fair to say they expect them to stay at the same standard in exams. Sue Kirkham, ASCL

Last year, Ofqual advised exam boards to limit the number of A grades at A-level to 27 per cent of the cohort – a policy known as “comparable outcomes”. This year, it will be extended to GCSEs including English and Maths.

But education experts expressed concern that it could hold back hard-working pupils and effective schools.

Read more: Exams whistleblower says ‘thousands’ of papers could be wrong

Conflict in education policy

Sue Kirkham, education policy specialist at ASCL said the union appreciates the attempt to maintain similar standards year-on-year but had major concerns about the way it is being implemented. “Schools are constantly being exhorted to ensure that all students improve,” she told Channel 4 News. “Therefore it hardly seems fair to say they expect them to stay at the same standard in exams. There seems to be a conflict between these two policies.”

When the “comparable outcomes” policy was introduced for A-level, exam boards assessed a cohort’s potential capabilities based on their GCSE performance, and then ensured there was not a dramatic rise in performance at A-level. However when this is applied to GCSE, exam boards will use a cohort’s Key Stage 2 results sat at age 11 as an indicator of their achievement.

“Schools try to ensure that everyone achieves the maximum possible. No-one should be written off because they achieved a certain mark five years ago,” added Ms Kirkham.

Q&A: Exam re-marking explained

‘Useful interim measure’

But an Ofqual spokesperson said it was the regulator’s responsibility to ensure grades are correct. “Where we see differences year on year, or between one exam board and another, it is our job to challenge that and to see whether there is any evidence, any explanation for it,” she told Channel 4 News. “Results do go up or down, for various reasons. They don’t stay exactly the same each year, in each subject. But we have to be as sure as we can be that any movement is for a good reason, and that is what we do.”

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment at Buckingham University, told The Independent newspaper that the measure could only be “temporary”.

“In essence we’ve brought about a new form of norm referencing by setting the levels at where they were in 2010 – but there is nothing to say this is the most appropriate distribution of grades and we need to examine this,” he added.

Pupils’ grades ‘devalued’

Dr Fiona Hammans, headteacher at Banbury School, Ocfordshire, told Channel 4 News that something needed to be done to regulate grade inflation.

“The problem is that every year the children hear that exams are getting easer and easier and it devalues their marks,” she said. “Universities also require higher grades for entry than previous years. If we can have some proper comparable system year on year, we could really see if the youngsters are working harder and if the teachers are doing well. But whether we stick with this system every year, I don’t know whether that’s a good idea.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are determined to raise standards across the board. It is vital that all pupils get the grades their work deserves. Ministers have been clear that it is only fair to every hard-working young person that there is no grade inflation or dumbing down in the exams system.”