New Grading System – Implications for the current Year 7 and 8!

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During the holidays, I must admit that I was starting to feel this way about Mr Gove following the announcement of the new grading system for GCSE!

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I then remembered Mike Hughes’ (Tweak to Transform) perceptive aphorism, The most effective leaders seem to have erected a sheet of polaroid across the school gate: all the confusing, paradoxical and frustrating initiatives hitting the school, as they pass through the polaroid, emerge as parallel lines, harmonious with our plans and processes. At HWCS I will continue to try and make sure this is always the case.

Last week Ofqual published its long awaited plans for how it intends the grading standards for reformed GCSEs to be set and maintained. In other words, how will exam boards decide where to put grade boundaries when they first award the new GCSEs in 2017 (for English and maths; 2018 for other subjects)? And how will the established standard then be carried forward in subsequent years?

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(Note that these proposals are subject to consultation and so could change!)

The new grades will be 9 to 1, not A* to G, and will not correlate directly. So how do we decide where to put the new numerical grades? And how can the system ensure that students, teachers, employers and universities understand what the new grades mean and what level of performance they represent?

The other complicating factor is that new GCSEs are explicitly intended to be of a higher standard. This means that when they are first awarded, the ‘comparable outcomes’ approach will not apply, per se, since the intention is not to maintain the current standard but to set a new, higher one.

That said, Ofqual is keen that the first cohort of students taking reformed GCSEs are not disadvantaged by being the first. The approach, therefore, will be to ensure that at certain grades, students who would have received a given grade in the old GCSE will receive an equivalent grade in the new one.

Equivalents to current GCSE grades

Grade 4 will therefore be set at the level of a grade C. What this means is that the same (Key Stage 2 based) statistical predictions that guide the setting of the C grade boundary under comparable outcomes will be used to set the 4 grade boundary in the first year of the new GCSEs. This will ensure that the same proportion of candidates who would have achieved a grade C will be awarded a grade 4.

A similar approach is proposed for grade 7, which will be set at the level of the current A grade. Grade 1 will encompass the current F and G grades, which I think implies that grade 2 will be set at the level of a grade E, although Ofqual isn’t explicit on this point.

In an effort to achieve greater differentiation at the top end, the current A and A* will therefore be spread over three grades: 7, 8 and 9. To showcase exceptional performance, Ofqual suggests that grade 9 could go to the top half of those who currently get an A*, which is a fairly arbitrary choice but would achieve the objective.

The new internationally-benchmarked ‘good pass’

Things get interesting at grade 5. Given that the new GCSEs are meant to be of a higher standard, there is a clear intention to make grade 5 the new ‘good pass’, meaning that it would be at a higher level than the current grade C. This presents some challenges. The ‘good pass’ has to be realistically achievable by a good proportion of the cohort; setting it at the level of a B would mean that well under 40% of pupils would achieve a grade 5 in English or maths, compared to the 60-odd percent who get a grade C now.

The upshot of all this is that Ofqual plans to set grade 5 at half to two-thirds a grade above the current C. The eagle-eyed mathematicians among you will have spotted that, with grade 4 set at C and grade 7 set at A, it would not be a huge surprise for grades 5 and 6 to be situated at two-thirds-of-a-grade intervals anyway. But there is now a PISA-based justification for it too.

So, in summary, we have: grade 1 that covers F and G; grade 4 that has the same lower bound as C; grade 5 that is ‘internationally benchmarked’ about two-thirds of the way towards a B; grade 7 that has the same lower bound as A; and grade 9 for the top-performing half of A* students. The other grades, Ofqual implies, will be determined mathematically. This is what happens now: grades A, C and F, known as the judgment grades, are ‘manually’ awarded and the other grade boundaries are filled in at equal intervals.

What does it all mean for schools?

There is a lot going on here but the important things for schools are quite straightforward. “Grade 4 equals grade C” is definitely the central message. Teachers are confident about grade C; they know what it looks like and they know how to teach their students to a grade C. Keep doing this and, in broad terms, you should be reasonably confident that those Cs should translate to 4s without too much worry.

That said, it is grade 5 not grade 4 that is likely to be the new threshold for a ‘good pass’. This will obviously be more demanding but the move to the Attainment 8 and Progress 8 accountability measures will take a lot of pressure off of the threshold.

There will be an opportunity for more stretch at the top end and schools with very high-performing intakes, like grammar schools, will want to be aiming for grade 9s in order to maximise their Progress 8 score.

And what about students?

One of the biggest worries for students will be the currency of their qualifications in the real world. Those in the Class of 2017 will be in an awkward transition year. They’ll have English and maths GCSEs graded with numbers and other subjects with letters. Pegging the new grade 4 to a C and grade 7 to an A is crucial here; this at least gives a clear reference point to employers and universities that will allow them to compare new qualifications with old, until the new system beds in and end users begin to understand it.

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