Setting standards

Students will be sitting exams for new GCSEs in maths, English literature and English language for the first time in the summer of 2017. We want to be clear with them and others well ahead of 2017 about the new grading system and the levels of performance expected.

We know that teachers want as much notice as possible of changes, and we intend to be clear about standards - where we set the bar and how we hold it steady - ahead of this autumn term and before teachers begin to teach the new GCSEs, so that they know what to plan for as they consider the new specs in the first subjects. We have put forward some proposals in the consultation we launched today.

There is no one, right way to set standards. Countries do it differently, and set different standards. That makes this consultation a little unusual, and we are running this consultation a little differently than usual as a result. Because there is not one way or one international standard, but many, it makes it particularly important that people have the chance to give us their views about what is right for our students, to set them up well for the next stages in their lives. We want to hear people's views, and in May and June we will be running regional events for people to have their say.

We are proposing that we match the new grade four to current Grade C – to provide a reference point, a link between old and new. We propose that we align grade five to the performance of students in other countries that perform well, where students perform better than our students in international tests. We are not proposing to hardwire our standards to those in any particular country. Instead we suggest that we take a broader view, and look at a range of countries that do well. We explain that that would mean setting the grade five boundary in 2017 at about a half to two thirds of a grade higher than that required for a current grade C.

We will have more grades available above grades four and five than we have above current grade C and we make some suggestions about standards at the top end, for example that only students who perform exceptionally well are awarded the very top grade. We know that there is some concern about the proportion of students who get top grades at the moment, and we are interested to see what people think about reserving the top grade for very high achievers.

Lastly we ask about the bottom of the scale, and your views on where we should pitch the first grade above the fail grade ('unclassified').

As you would expect, we think our suggestions are sensible - otherwise we would not be making them – but we really do want to know what others think. There is no right answer to some of these questions, but judgements for us to make, and we want to base our judgements not just on the technical considerations that we are familiar with. We want to take into account the nation's views as well.

Do tell us what you think is right for our young people.

Glenys Stacey
Chief Regulator


  1. Comment by Dan Bottom posted on

    I think the suggestions outlined above seem fairly reasonable, especially making the new grade 9 equivalent to a standard that is beyond GCSE. How performance relates to PISA testing will, no doubt prove rather hard to gauge in subjects such as English given that the reading element of PISA testing is assessed in a different manner from the current and proposed GCSEs.
    If U grade is retained, then presumably a grade 1 in English will be some attempt at the questions though how the current grades G, F, E and D are squeezed into new grades 1, 2, and 3 might prove rather awkward...will there be a fairly sharp ascent in skill and knowledge level from 1 to 2, then a bit of a plateau between 3 and 4?
    It is clear that the media are concerned about the proportion of students achieving A*s but it is worrying to think that a cap of say 3% will determine who gets a grade 9 simply because year-on-year comparisons might prove difficult; two students might perform identically in different series of exams, yet one might end up with a 9 one year and the other a grade 9. I suppose though that this is what happens now, though in a more covert fashion through grade boundaries being toyed with by exam boards.
    Another thing, probably entirely separate from the issue in hand but worthy of mention nonetheless is how will the proposals for end of KS2 reporting, the score of 100 being equivalent to a 4b, feed into this system in terms of secondary schools being judged on levels of progress? Will the Fischer Family Trust still be tasked with determining every child's likely performance in Y11 and schools still be held to account over this? And if yes, how will this look in reality? It is good that attempts are being made to raise standards, but the stick with which school's are being beaten needs to be scrutinised too.
    Finally, cross-referencing with PISA might or might not be helpful, but it will be entirely pointless if the different exam boards are not compelled to produce assessments of equal challenge that are marked with equal proficiency (and if this is achieved, why have different exam boards at all?).

    • Replies to Dan Bottom>

      Comment by Glenys Stacey posted on

      Thank you for taking the time to read and comment. Taking each of your points in turn:

      On the new grade 9, we are not proposing to set this at a standard beyond GCSE. Rather, our proposal is that only some of the students that current get A* would get this new grade 9, so it would recognise the very highest achievement.

      On the proposed links to PISA, we know there are differences between what is tested by PISA and what is tested by GCSEs, and that is more likely in English than in mathematics. That's why we're not proposing to tie GCSE results to any particular country or even to the PISA average – that could make it harder for us to maintain consistent standards year on year. But we are proposing that we should use the data from PISA to see how students achieving, say, a grade 5 might compare to students internationally.

      On the question of U and grades 1 to 3, we have put forward a proposal but it is for discussion. We want to know whether the current grade G has currency – is it considered to be an achievement for students, for example? Your question about how the skills and knowledge might be expected to increase over the lower grades is a good one, and there is no easy answer. Our aim would be to make sure this is reasonably consistent across the grade range. We are working with exam boards to model possible scenarios and we will also be considering how the current process for deciding grade boundaries can be improved.

      You comment that the current system effectively places a cap on the number of higher grades. It is true that exam boards use statistical predictions to guide their awards but the objective of this approach is that a student who would achieve a B in one year would also achieve a B the following year.

      You are right that others – the Department for Education and also organisations such as Fisher Family Trust – will also have an interest in what we're proposing, so they can see the potential impact on other changes in the wider system. We have already been talking to the Department for Education about the impact with end of Key Stage 2 reporting and with the accountability measures in 2017 and beyond. And we'll be talking to them as part of this consultation.

      And your last comment about exam boards producing papers of similar demand and that are marked and graded consistently – you'll be reassured to know that we have set much more detailed requirements (what we are calling 'industry standards') on the design of these qualifications. And we are requiring exam boards to send us their assessment strategies which will tell us, among other things, how they propose to set their papers. Making sure standards between exam boards are aligned is a key priority for us now and it will continue to be in the future.