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
Getty
Show Hide image

Not since the Thatcher years have so many Tory MPs been so motivated by self-interest

Assured of an election win, backbenchers are thinking either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. 

One hears despair from Labour not just about probable defeat, but from MPs who felt they had three years to improve the party’s fortunes, or to prepare for personal oblivion. In the Conservative Party, matters seem quite the opposite. Veterans of the 1983 election recall something similar: a campaign fought in the absolute certainty of winning. Theresa May talked of putting the interests of the country first when she engineered the poll, and one must believe she was sincere. However, for those expecting to be Tory MPs after 8 June there are other priorities. Theirs is not a fight for the national interest, because that for them is a foregone conclusion. It is about their self-interest: either advancing up the greasy pole, or mounting it for the first time. They contemplate years ahead in which to consolidate their position and, eventually, to shape the tone and direction of the party.

The luxury of such thoughts during a campaign comes only when victory is assured. In 1983 I worked for a cabinet minister and toured marginal seats with him. Several candidates we met – most of whom won – made it clear privately that however important it was to serve their constituents, and however urgent to save the country from the threats within what the late Gerald Kaufman later called “the longest suicide note in history”, there was another issue: securing their place in the Thatcher revolution. Certain they and their party would be elected in the aftermath of the Falklands War, they wanted their snout in the trough.

These are early days, but some conver­sations with those heading for the next House of Commons echo the sentiments of 1983. The contemporary suicide note has not appeared, but is keenly awaited. Tories profess to take less notice of opinion polls than they once did – and with good reason, given the events of 2015 and 2016 – but ­imagine their party governing with a huge majority, giving them a golden opportunity to advance themselves.

Labour promises to change the country; the Liberal Democrats promise to force a reconsideration of Brexit; Ukip ­promises to ban the burqa; but the Tories believe power is theirs without the need for elaborate promises, or putting any case other than that they are none of the above. Thus each man and woman can think more about what the probability of four or five further years in the Commons means to them. This may seem in poor taste, but that is human nature for you, and it was last seen in the Labour Party in about 2001.

Even though this cabinet has been in place only since last July, some Tory MPs feel it was never more than an interim arrangement, and that some of its incumbents have underperformed. They expect vacancies and chances for ministers of state to move up. Theresa May strove to make her team more diverse, so it is unfortunate that the two ministers most frequently named by fellow Tories as underachievers represent that diversity – Liz Truss, the Lord Chancellor, who colleagues increasingly claim has lost the confidence of the judiciary and of the legal profession along with their own; and Sajid Javid, the Communities Secretary, whom a formerly sympathetic backbencher recently described to me as having been “a non-event” in his present job.

Chris Grayling, the Transport Secretary, was lucky to survive his own stint as lord chancellor – a post that must surely revert to a qualified lawyer, with Dominic Grieve spoken of in that context, even though, like all ardent Remainers in the government, he would be expected to follow the Brexit line – and the knives are out for him again, mainly over Southern Rail but also HS2. David Gauke, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and the little-known Ben Gummer, a Cabinet Office minister, are tipped for promotion with Grieve if vacancies arise: that all three are white men may, or may not, be a consideration.

Two other white men are also not held in high regard by colleagues but may be harder to move: Boris Johnson, whose conduct of the Foreign Office is living down to expectations, and Michael Fallon, whose imitation of the Vicar of Bray over Brexit – first he was for it, then he was against it, and now he is for it again – has not impressed his peers, though Mrs May considers him useful as a media performer. There is also the minor point that Fallon, the Defence Secretary, is viewed as a poor advocate for the armed forces and their needs at a time when the world can hardly be called a safe place.

The critical indicator of how far personal ambition now shapes the parliamentary Tory party is how many have “done a Fallon” – ministers, or aspirant ministers, who fervently followed David Cameron in advising of the apocalyptic results of Brexit, but who now support Theresa May (who is also, of course, a reformed Remainer). Yet, paradoxically, the trouble Daniel Hannan, an arch-Brexiteer and MEP, has had in trying to win selection to stand in Aldershot – thanks to a Central Office intervention – is said to be because the party wants no one with a “profile” on Europe to be added to the mix, in an apparent attempt to prevent adding fuel to the fire of intra-party dissent. This may appease a small hard core of pro-Remain MPs – such as Anna Soubry, who has sufficient talent to sit in the cabinet – who stick to their principles; but others are all Brexiteers now.

So if you seek an early flavour of the next Conservative administration, it is right before you: one powering on to Brexit, not only because that is what the country voted for, but because that is the orthodoxy those who wish to be ministers must devotedly follow. And though dissent will grow, few of talent wish to emulate Soubry, sitting out the years ahead as backbenchers while their intellectual and moral inferiors prosper.

Simon Heffer is a columnist for the Daily and Sunday Telegraphs

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

0800 7318496