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Setting GCSE grade boundaries this summer

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: A levels and GCSEs, Uncategorized

Last summer we had new 9 to 1 GCSEs in three subjects – English language, English literature and maths. This year they are joined by another 20 new GCSEs (see image below, click to enlarge). This means that many students (though not all) will receive entirely 9 to 1 grades for their GCSEs this summer.

As we get closer to results day, exam boards will be working with their senior examiners to set grade boundaries on this summer’s papers. This is not done until after marking has taken place so that the grade boundaries can take account of how demanding the papers were.

Here are some key points to remember about grade boundaries this summer.

Boundaries in 9 to 1 tiered subjects

Maths, the sciences (biology, chemistry, physics and combined science) and modern foreign languages (French, German and Spanish) are tiered. In the new GCSEs, grades 5 and 4 are available on both foundation and higher tiers. There is also a narrow ‘safety net’ grade 3 on higher tier. Previously grades C and D were available on both foundation and higher tier, and there was also a narrow ‘safety net’ grade E available on higher tier, for those who just missed a D. So, the overlap of grades between the two tiers is higher up the grade scale in the new GCSEs. We’ve seen in maths that this change has led schools and colleges to enter more of their students to the foundation tier because of the more demanding content on the higher tier.

Where subjects are tiered, exam boards must include some ‘common questions’ – questions which are the same on the foundation and higher tier papers – to help them align standards between the tiers. The assumption here is that a student will perform similarly on those common questions, regardless of the tier for which they were entered. As such, a student who might expect to get a grade 4 on the foundation tier, would also expect to get a grade 4 on the higher tier. There is more information on how that works here.

What does that mean for grade boundaries on the two tiers? Last year, we saw some concerns about the grade 4 boundary on higher tier maths. We explained the detail behind that. Maths is a little different from sciences and languages in that we have rules about the proportion of marks to be targeted at particular grades. There are no similar rules for languages and sciences, because the content is not targeted in the same way. But, just as in maths, the higher tier papers in languages and sciences are designed to be more challenging than the old GCSEs, so that the very able students can show what they can do. Grade 4 is the lowest key grade on the higher tier, so it will tend to be set at a relatively low mark, compared to grade 7 or grade 9. But that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the papers. And students can have confidence in those grades.

Grade 9

Grade 9 is not the same as the old A* grade. It’s a new grade, designed to recognise the very best performance. So, in every subject there will be fewer grade 9s awarded than A*s in the old GCSEs. For the 20 new GCSEs this summer, grade 9 will be set using the ‘tailored approach’ formula, and there is more detail on that here. For English language, English literature and maths, exam boards will use predictions to carry forward the grade 9 standard set in 2017, in the same way that they use predictions at grades 7, 4 and 1.

Those predictions, and the formula for the new subjects, will use only 16-year-olds matched to their Key Stage 2 prior attainment. So, if you’re worried that teachers or journalists – like the three BBC Breakfast presenters this year – taking these new qualifications, for whatever reason, might take grade 9s from the students, that won’t happen. It could be that every maths teacher (and journalist) in the country entered new GCSE maths one year, but they could all be awarded a grade 9 (provided they scored enough marks) without affecting the number of grade 9s awarded to 16-year-olds.

Combined science

GCSE combined science is different from other GCSEs as it’s a double award (worth two GCSEs); it assesses two GCSEs’ worth of content, and so it has a double grade to reflect that. And because it’s a double grade, we thought it was fairer to have 17 grades, running from 9-9, 9-8, 8-8 through to 1-1. So if a student just misses a grade 5-5, they will get a 5-4. For example, if they were taking two separate science GCSEs, they would still achieve grade 5 in chemistry even if they just missed grade 5 in biology, so we think the same should apply in combined science.

Exam boards will be using predictions to align the new grades with those in the old GCSEs. Those predictions will take account of different entry approaches, including students who previously took science in year 10 and additional science in year 11, those who took both in year 11, and the small number of students who just took science.

In combined science there is no previous equivalent to, for example, grade 4-4. If schools or colleges want to compare their results with previous years, the closest comparison would be to look at the proportion of students who previously achieved at least a grade C in science and at least a grade C in additional science, and compare that to the proportion this year who achieve at least a grade 4-4 in combined science. There is more detail on the new science GCSEs here.

Across all subjects, grade boundaries will be set this summer to ensure that students this summer are treated fairly, and are not disadvantaged by being the first to sit new GCSEs.

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  1. Comment by Carlos Matos posted on

    It legitimaly amazes me how you spent ages ratting on about grade boundaries without even explicitly saying if they're likely to go up or down this year.

    • Replies to Carlos Matos>

      Comment by Hannah Bradley posted on

      As we say in the blog above, grade boundaries are set once marking is finished, because it is only then that exam boards know how difficult this year's papers have been. Exam boards are now setting those grade boundaries and will continue for another week or so. If this year's papers in a subject are more demanding, then grade boundaries will likely be lower; if the papers were easier, then grade boundaries will likely be higher. Grade boundaries will be published on results day.

  2. Comment by Beth posted on

    It amazes me that you include a safety net for grade 3 candidates on the higher paper, yet no safety net for the grade 6 candidates on the foundation paper.
    I really wish you would make this more fair

    • Replies to Beth>

      Comment by Hannah Bradley posted on

      The 'safety net' grade is designed to ensure that students who do not quite achieve enough marks for a grade 4 do not miss out on a grade completely. Students who do well on foundation tier papers will not have covered the higher tier content that is aimed at those students expected to get a grade 6 (or higher) and therefore it would not be fair to higher tier students to award a grade 6 on foundation tier for scoring very highly on foundation tier content. Our experience in 2017 was that no one scored full marks on foundation tier papers.

  3. Comment by Annarose posted on

    I hope you are doing this as the BBC are reporting that you are not moving the boundaries. My daughter is one of your guinea pigs and I hope she doesn't suffer as a consequence.