Why falling exam results are not entirely a bad thing

A fall in GCSE grades.

Today marked the first fall in the percentage of GCSE students gaining a “C” grade or above since the qualification was originally introduced. 69.4 per cent of papers were awarded at least a “C” grade compared to a figure of 69.8 per cent last year.

Given that OFQUAL (the independent exams regulator) has recently stated that exam boards must put an end to “grade inflation”, it is unsurprising that we have not been met with the customary cheery August headlines. Whilst the new system of “comparable outcomes” was expected to see results stagnate for the foreseeable future, a fall in exam performance of this magnitude was not expected.

The reforms come in response to claims that continued improvements in exam performance are the result of the “dumbing down of exams”. Consequently, employers and universities are gradually losing faith in the credibility of GCSE and A-level qualifications. Last week, recruitment group Adecco published figures stating that 65 per cent of employers considered that A-levels did not provide adequate preparation for employment.  

Some sceptics point to the fact that schools are free to choose which exam boards their students use. These for-profit organisations such as OCR and Edexcel charge a fee per pupil. As a result, in a damaging “race to the bottom”, it is in the best interests of exam boards to offer an attractive curriculum with the easiest exams possible.

Previously, OFQUAL operated a system of “comparable performance” or “criterion referencing” in which exam papers were marked in accordance to “the knowledge, skills and understanding that students must show in the exam”. In other words, if exactly the same cohort sat two different exams, but one exam was harder than the other, “comparable performance” implies that those sitting the harder paper would be unfairly disadvantaged. In the case where the introduction of a new syllabus meant that teachers were less experienced at teaching the new exam format, grade boundaries could be adjusted. In spite of this, as years passed by and teachers became more accustomed to this new syllabus, we saw repeated improvements in national exam performance.

Critics suggest that the successive increase in pass rates witnessed over the last 27 years has largely been as a result of this “grade inflation”. Accordingly, this improvement in exam scores does not represent a “real” improvement in performance. In a recent study by Cambridge Assessment, 87 per cent of lecturers declared that “too much teaching to the test” was a significant factor in undergraduates being underprepared for study at university.

In an attempt to stem this perceived grade inflation, OFQUAL has introduced a “comparable outcomes” system where the percentage of students obtaining each grade will largely remain the same. Exam boards are now required to justify any increases in national exam performance with evidence that the cohort in question are more “able” than those in previous years. In the case of verifying the A-level grade distribution in a particular year, that cohort’s GCSE grade distribution will be used as a reference point. For GCSE’s the benchmark is KS2 performance.

The justification behind this is that exam results should remain constant across time, as there is no definitive evidence that the base “ability” of students, which is what employers and universities are really interested in, changes year-on-year:

“You would expect outcomes to remain consistent year to year unless there are changes in terms of the cohort or the syllabuses, or in terms of other extraneous factors”, said Simon Lebus of Cambridge Assessment, parent company of the OCR exam board.”

In 2010 OFQUAL prioritized “comparable outcomes” over “comparable performance”. The same increases in the percentage of students obtaining “A” grades was not seen.

This is an interesting statement of intent from OFQUAL as it raises questions over the very nature of exam grades. By definition, with “norm-referencing”, pass rates will always be the same. According to these reforms, if all the teachers in the country were to put in double the amount of work and all the students in the country knew the syllabus material twice as well, exam results would not change. The government can no longer use results to measure standards in education. By preventing grade inflation and restoring the credibility of academic qualifications, Gove is removing a potential weapon from his political armoury.

The reforms have also been met with opposition from students and teachers, due to the fact that some GCSE papers, particularly in English, which would have received a “C” under the old regime, would now be awarded a “D”. Some exam boards have unexpectedly increased this grade boundary by over 10 marks from last year.

If the ideals of comparable outcomes are to be upheld, it should work in both directions. Accordingly, the fall in the percentage of A*-C grades in English (1.5 per cent), English Literature (2.1 per cent) and Science (2.2 per cent) are somewhat perplexing. The Joint Council for Qualifications points to the “more demanding standard” of exams that have recently been requested in Whitehall.
A reversal of previous grade inflation is a necessary evil, but Gove has raised suspicions over the manner in which corrective action has been carried out. Earlier this academic year, the “floor standard”- the minimum percentage of A*-C’s required for a school to be judged as not “underperforming”- was raised from 35 per cent to 40 per cent. Schools failing to meet this criterion are put under increased pressure to convert to academies. Consistent underperformance enables the government to make conversion mandatory. Today’s decline will see many schools fail this metric and the government intends to raise this figure to 50 per cent in the future. Yet, as mentioned earlier, comparable outcomes invalidates the use of exam results as a benchmark.

Some may say that OFQUAL are “fiddling” results and not awarding grades solely on the basis of merit. Indeed, the unexpected manner in which the new standards have been imposed will leave thousands of students, teachers and parents disappointed. In spite of this, adjusting grade distributions is entirely necessary to preserve the integrity of standardized testing.

Exam results are intended to signal your relative ability and not absolute ability. An “A” grade in maths is meaningless by itself. Employers don’t understand the meaning of an “A” grade without others obtaining “B” grades, “C” grades etc. Similarly, if so many students are gaining “A” grades such that employers and university admission staff lose faith in the entire system, then an “A” is equally as meaningless. Irrespective of systematic improvements in standards, the credibility of the grading system is undermined if everyone achieves top marks.

“Comparable outcomes” does not prevent students and teachers from being recognized and rewarded for hard work. It does, however, remove the wholesale improvement in exam performance that results from teachers becoming more familiar with syllabus material- an irrelevance where students are judged relative to one another.

Today, there has been a lack of transparency in the grading of papers, but falling exam results are not unambiguously a bad thing. What the reforms do signify is that improving standards are a zero-sum game. It is a statistical law that, for one school to outperform, another must underperform, therefore Gove should think twice before threatening the latter.  

Students getting their GCSE results. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.