Harder 2017 GCSE exams with hardly any fall in the pass rates: what’s the problem?

Cue the usual media images of girls gleefully celebrating their results and Executive Principals extolling the excellence of their schools. There was lots of coverage of the new 1-9 grading system and the Schools Minister, Nick Gibb, explaining that the exams had been made harder so that the English Schools system could catch up with the world leaders in East Asia. See the correct, and very different, interpretation of international PISA test results here.

Why was any reform needed if the exams could be made harder but about the same proportions of pupils passed at the equivalent grades to the old system? Nick Gibb explained that this was because of  ‘the tailored approach’.

You can read about this in the Ofqual guide, but the essence is captured in this sentence.

“The first award of all new GCSEs will be based primarily on statistical predictions with examiner judgement playing a secondary role.”

In other words Ofqual ensured that students obtained the grades that Oqual decided from its statistics that they ought to have got, rather than the grades examiners would normally award from the raw marks obtained.

No wonder the students were so pleased on exam results day, because according to the twitter storm that followed the end of the maths exam in June quite a few appeared to be suffering from EPTSD (Educational Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). The following tweets were typical:

Walking out of that maths shite

well that was bloody awful

I apologise to the examiner for the tears on my paper

I hope the grade boundaries are as low as my self esteem

The last comment turned out to be prescient as the Daily Telegraph picked up.

The BBC certainly didn’t. They could have found it in the Ofqual handbook, where, in the higher tier maths paper, the average  threshold raw mark for grade 4, equivalent to the former GCSE grade C used for decades by OfSTED to judge schools from ‘failing’ to ‘outstanding’, is given as 18 percent, with about ‘half marks’ needed to get the new grade 7 (former grade A). For some exam boards the grade C threshold was even lower, as the Telegraph pointed out.

Last year, 35 per cent was required for a pass in Maths with Edexcel, while this year the pass mark has dropped to 17 per cent. Similarly, last year students taking a Maths GCSE with OCR needed 30.5 per cent to get a pass, compared to 15.3 per cent this year. Under AQA, the pass mark for Maths was 35.4 per cent last year, which has fallen to 19.2 per cent this year.

Far from ‘raising standards to those of the best education systems in the world’, the grade boundary threshold marks had to be halved in order to keep the pass rates similar to those of the previous year. This means that the same grades could be achieved with half the number of correct answers.

OK, this was the higher tier paper where many of the questions were aimed at the top grades, but even in the foundation tier paper, where the highest grade possible was still C, a pass mark of only 51 percent was needed.

Any teacher experienced in examining will recognise this as very odd indeed. In the 1980s, I was a CSE Chief Examiner (and later a GCSE Chief Examiner) in the days when comprehensive school students took CSE or GCE exams. This was like the two tier system in GCSE maths. CSEs had a top grade 1, equivalent by definition to a GCE C, which became GCSE grade C when GCE was replaced. The other benchmark was CSE grade 4 (GCSE F). This was defined as the grade that a student of average ability could expect to obtain having followed a competently taught course of study. That this grade now appears so low may seem bizarre, but was perfectly rational given that prior to comprehensive reorganisation, 11 plus failure children didn’t take any exams at all. It is fully explained in Section 1.10, ‘The history of GCSE grades’, of my book, ‘Learning Matters‘.

CSE covered GCSE equivalent grades G to C, as does the foundation tier of GCSE maths. However to get a C equivalent grade in the CSE system a raw mark of about 70 percent was needed, rather than the 51% in the 2017 Foundation Tier GCSE maths. This after what we have been led to believe has been thirty years of continuous school improvement involving hundreds of schools being closed and replaced by Academies.

GCE maths was like the higher tier of GCSE maths. The GCE had passes graded from A-C, with D & E grades added later. These all passed directly into the new GCSE with G & F added to the bottom and A* added later to the top. The new GCSE grade 4 (C) is ‘expected’ of students regardless of ability, upon pain of repeating the exam throughout years 12 & 13 until grade 4 is achieved (or not).

In GCE exams, teachers and students were told that a raw mark of about 40 percent was usually needed for a C, compared to 15 percent in the 2017 maths higher tier GCSE. But perhaps the questions in the GCE exam papers were easier? You would not find many retired teachers that believe that, with most arguing that the converse is the case.

The most striking feature of the English education system from the 1980s to the present day has been unprecedented grade inflation on an astonishing scale. Michael Gove, Nick Gibb and the Conservative government are right to recognise this.

Who is to blame for this educational catastrophe? The chief villain is certainly Margaret Thatcher, whose marketisation enabling 1988 Education Reform Act created the inflationary engine that drove the process, just as her ‘tenant’s right to buy council houses’ was the engine of equally disastrous parallel house price and rent inflation. The current housing crisis is linked to the persisting low GCSE attainment levels in deprived communities. It was not always so.

Only now are the truly dire consequences of the advances on both neo-liberal battle fronts becoming apparent.

Tony Blair’s, 1997 Labour government not only failed  to revoke the 1988 Education Act and Thatcher’s ‘right to buy’, but twisted the marketising screw even tighter by legislating for the destruction of Local Education Authorities (LEAs) by creating independent Academy schools. It was these Blair promoted Academies that formed the vanguard for the most extreme grade inflation throughout the ‘vocational scam’ years, whereby four GCSE C grade equivalents could be achieved through single courses with 100 percent rates taking up the same lesson time or less than GCSE maths or English; all under the nose of OfSTED, which appeared not to notice any problem.

All of this is documented in detail, with supporting evidence, in Part 3 of ‘Learning Matters‘ entitled, ‘Spectacular School Improvement’.

Presumably in 2018 all the remaining GCSE subjects still on the A*-G grade scale will fall into line with maths, English and English literature and adopt the 1 – 9 grading system, however it is not clear what will happen to raw mark grade thresholds and standards. Can we expect further drastic reductions in the marks needed to obtain the grade 4 standard (C) as we have seen in maths?

What about GCSE maths in 2018? Ofqual suggests that the 2017 pass mark manipulation is to be a ‘one off’, but how should the Ofqual statement be interpreted?

The grade standard established in the first award will be carried forward in the second and subsequent years. The same approach will be used for the first awards of grades 1 to 7 in all new GCSEs as has already been confirmed for new GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths. This approach uses key reference points between current (alphabetical) and new (numerical) grades to set grade standards in the new qualifications. The ‘tailored’ approach’ will be used to set standards for grades 8 and 9 in all new GCSEs in the first year they are awarded, including English language, English literature and maths. The standard established in the first award for grades 8 and 9 will be carried forward in the second and subsequent years.

Unless the 2018 papers are made easier it is hard to see how the grade mark thresholds can be raised, unless the understanding of the students undergoes a considerable improvement. The whole approach of the government seems to imply that by making the exams harder and restricting the awarding of the higher grades, then the deeper understanding required will come about naturally through market forces as schools compete on the basis of proportions of cohorts gaining the new grades 8 & 9 as well as grade 4.

However deeper understanding can only result from more cognitively developed students and/or more effective teaching and learning.

In his far reaching and exceptionally well-informed Local Schools Network article, Matthew Bennett sees the apparent new quest for ‘deeper learning’ to be something very different in reality, as full-on ‘for profit’ Multi Academy Chains’ complete the privatisation journey, rendering the new MAT private education companies highly profitable through the replacement of teachers by computerised instruction and testing software.

I have copied the following from his article including his links.

Technology will play a critical role in this next stage.  Computer-based, online instruction – marketed as ‘blended’ or ‘personalised’ learning – is already a reality in the USA, where it is rapidly being adopted by charter school networks.  Ark and other academy chains are seeking to bring it to England (see here).  From a commercial point of view, it has huge advantages:  it allows drastic reductions in labour and plant costs – what Ark calls ‘staffing and school design efficiencies’ – and the opening of new markets in products and services created by the growing ‘ed tech’ industry.  As Rupert Murdoch announced – a bit prematurely – in 2011, the automation of teaching will finally make possible the exploitation of a $500bn market by profit-making companies.

The current accountability system – which involves measuring the performance of all students using the same tests, taken at the same time – is now an obstacle to that goal.  The next wave of edu-businesses will have their own proprietary curricula, and their own proprietary testing systems.  The curricula will be digital, delivered by computer.  So will the tests, which will be ‘embedded’ in the online ‘instructional content’.  Personalised learning is based on the real-time tracking of students’ performance in online tests;  it is essentially a system of continuous testing, which produces vast amounts of data.  (Ark are busy developing a new cloud-based service, Assembly, which will collect data from school ‘management information systems’, for the use of ed tech companies.)

This data, as US campaigners like Emily Talmage and Alison McDowell argue, could form the basis of a whole new investment market, based on social impact bonds.  This is a new type of investment vehicle developed and tested here in the UK, with help from ex-Ark employees like Toby Eccles, the founder of Social Finance UK.  It has been enthusiastically picked up by Goldman Sachs, who used social impact bonds to make a solid return on pre-school programmes in Utah and Chicago (see here).  Some key Ark people – Ron Beller, Jennifer Moses, Anthony Williams – are former Goldman partners.

This is the reason why Amanda Spielman is seeking to convince us that ‘there is more to a good education than league tables’.  It’s also the reason why Trump’s education secretary Betsy deVos, in her Senate confirmation hearing, sidestepped the question of whether all state-funded schools – both public and charter – should be held to the same standards of accountability (‘I support accountability’).

So instead of promoting a change in teaching methods designed to secure cognitive development and genuinely deeper learning, using the methods that the government sponsored Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) has found to be effective, the new GCSEs are likely to result in a much more sophisticated version of the existing behaviourist training and business culture that EEF finds to be ineffective.

If we are indeed hoping to raise school attainment to Chinese/Singaporean levels of attainment, then we will need to raise the cognitive ability levels of our students to their much higher levels. I have suggested how this could be done, but it would be a long-term project.

More depressingly, it will not happen so long as our education system is dominated by the current marketisation, managerialism and privatisation paradigm.

Labour’s National Education Service could provide the foundation for such reform, but only if Labour finally break ranks with all the mistaken assumptions of the Labour education policies of the past.


This entry was posted in Blogs. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s