Would you believe someone who told you now that they could predict, to 1 degree Celsius, the temperature on the day your students get their GCSE results this summer? Perhaps not. You might expect they could get reasonably close, based on previous average temperatures, but the British summer is infamously unpredictable.
We know that the big question for schools this year is where the grade boundaries – the minimum mark required for a grade - will be set in the new GCSEs in English and maths. It’s clear why this information would be helpful: to predict likely achievement, to motivate students, to report to parents and others.
Exam boards are not predicting the boundary marks, and are rightly urging caution. Other organisations, responding to teacher requests, are far less cautious. Some organisations have had their member schools sitting their own mock exams and have provided ‘results’ and ‘grade boundaries’ on the basis of that exercise. That’s really helpful, yes?
There are many good reasons to be cautious ahead of 2017. Here are our top three.
- Even in well-established qualifications, grade boundaries are never set in advance. And for good reason. It’s almost impossible to predict precisely how much easier or more difficult students will find a paper compared to previous years. Even the examiners who write the papers find it challenging. So exam boards wait until the students have taken the exam, compare their performance to that of previous cohorts, and then set the grade boundaries. 2017 is no different.
- 2017 sees the first live exams of new GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths. Exam boards have issued specimen papers and some sample answers, but this will be the first time these new style papers are taken by students and so we should be cautious in speculating about where the grade boundaries might be set.
- Statistics will play a key role in making sure this year’s students are not disadvantaged by being the first to sit these new GCSEs. Exam boards will use prior attainment at Key Stage 2 for the 16-year-old cohort to predict likely achievement at the key grades – 1, 4 and 7. The bottom of these grades will be aligned with the bottom of grades G, C and A respectively so the proportions of students achieving these grades or higher will be broadly similar to the previous year. We, and the exam boards, will have the full national picture; other organisations will only have a sub-set of the cohort, which may not be representative of the national situation.
Our advice to schools would be this: do not rely on any predictions of grade boundary marks for new GCSEs next summer. They are only a best guess, regardless of any modelling that might have been done. If the boundaries in the summer turn out to be different, which is quite likely for all the reasons set out above, you and you students might be disappointed.
So what can schools rely on? Well, we’ve already said that exam boards will set standards so that broadly the same proportion of students will achieve a grade 4 and above as previously achieved a C and above. Similarly, the proportions achieving grade 7 and above will be broadly the same as those achieving the old grade A and above. And we’ll be basing this on 16-year-old students.
What does that mean in terms of numbers? In 2016, in English and in maths, about 70% of 16-year-old students achieved a grade C or above. So we’d expect a similar percentage to achieve a 4 and above in 2017. At A, the figures are different in English and maths: in 2016 16% of 16-year-olds achieved an A or above in English and 20% achieved an A or above in maths. Again, we expect these figures to be broadly the same in 2017.
Our priorities during any series are that exams are delivered to plan, results are issued on time and are accurate, and that standards are maintained. We can’t tell you what the temperature will be on 24 August this year, but we can tell you that about 70% of 16-year-old students in England will achieve a grade 4 or above. I hope this gives you reassurance as you and your students continue your preparations for this summer.