When is a GCSE pass not a GCSE pass? – when it’s a PISA-influenced Grade 4

On April 3rd, just as students and teachers were getting ready for the Easter holidays, Ofqual – the body whose job it is to “maintain standards and confidence in [educational] qualifications” – started a “conversation” on standards for the new GCSEs.

Now, as a national exam, GCSE grades have more¹ to do – from reporting on student performance to ranking schools to informing teachers’ pay decisions – than perhaps any other exam grade in the world. A lot depends on GCSE results and Ofqual might well be keen to find out what people think about how best to maintain standards as GCSEs exchange letter grades (for courses starting next year and assessed in 2017) in favour of numbers.

There’s lots to say in and about this conversation but two proposals stand out:

  • “The same proportion of candidates will achieve the bottom of the grade 4 as currently achieve the bottom of the C grade.
  • The standard for a grade 5 will be set in line with the performance of students from the higher performing countries in international tests.”

It’s interesting to think for a moment about how these two might interact and, from there, about which tests these are, on how they are constructed, which knowledges and skills they aim to assess.

Firstly the mapping of grades. From Ofqual’s statements, it will appear something like this:

A diagram showing how Ofqual's proposed changes to GCSE grading might look compared with the current grading

Old GCSE grades next to new (Click to enlarge)

If a grade 4 is fixed by a blend of historical precedent and expected outcomes for the cohort (ie “Comparable Outcomes”) but a grade 5 is set by benchmarking against international cohorts as measured by PISA or similar then a grade 4 will be a particularly odd (and novel) sort of grade indeed. Whether you get one or not will, in part, be established by (1) your performance; (2) previous domestic students’ performances (3) your cohort’s performance (as is and was the case) but now also by (4) international students sitting very different exams with very different curricula.²

The most worrying bit of this is the ultimate effect on classroom learning. Presumably the granting of an extra 2 grades to the 4-9 distribution over the C-A* is the assessment system’s attempt to enshrine statistically what the government wants politically: “The Government has a policy aim that there must be an increase in demand at the level of what is widely considered to be a pass.” Now there’s plenty of implications (and issues) here. But, if we assume intentions translate unproblematically into actions then these extra grades above a C-equivalent Grade 4 will wash back into teaching and learning: a range of practices and discourses will develop, so the idea presumably goes, that bring about real improvement in assessment outcomes. Assessment outcomes as defined by the “performance of students from the higher performing countries in international tests.”

The idea of a truly National Curriculum has long gone but it may not be so far-fetched to say a PISA™ curriculum is around the corner. It is worth remembering a point made by Harry Torrance in a review of the assessment of the National Curriculum in England in 2003: “The larger the system of national assessment envisaged and implemented, the simpler the testing regime must be. And this, in turn, will carry consequences for curriculum focus and quality of educational experience.”

Ofqual proposes that the new GCSEs be influenced by a much larger system of assessment – “international tests”. This will have an effect on what students do in school though quite how, it is harder to say. Will students practise with PISA-like tests? Will our curriculum shift to reflect the kind of skills measured by PISA?

Either way, Ofqual proposes that our assessment system grow a step more complex – it is a conversation worth having indeed.

The consultation runs until the 30th June 2014 and can be found here

Adam Wood

¹ = GCSE results are used to inform decisions regarding: student performance; teacher performance; teacher pay; school performance; LEA/Academy Chain performance; school closures; public confidence in education; future exam results; students’ post-exam career and study choices; university entrance; job selection (think especially of the magic “C’s” in English and Maths and the list goes on. They also have to test (reliably and validly) what is deemed useful/important to learn.

² = very different, that is, for the moment. Theory would suggest that benchmarking assessment system X to assessment system Y would draw X’s curriculum in the direction of Y’s. Now PISA doesn’t have a curriculum (yet). But there are kinds of teaching and types of skill practice that would return higher scores on a PISA test – these are not ones that I would want to teach nor have my children taught. This is theory. And you test a theory before you put it into practice, especially on this scale, don’t you? Ofqual’s proposal is untested (and unprecedented, as far as I know).