A grade or a pass?

There has been much discussion, not least on the BBC’s Today programme this morning, about gaining a pass at GCSE with only 17% correct answers. Now is it a pass or a grade? The concept of a pass implies a minimum standard, whereas the grade shows what candidates know. If you make the exam harder, candidates may well do less well, unless the top end wasn’t stretching the most able sufficiently.

Now it appears that a clean grade system linked to what pupils have demonstrated they know in the form of examination administered this year in English and maths might have produced significant changes to outcomes if early murmurings are correct. How you allow for comparisons over time then becomes a challenge for the authorities.

I wonder whether Ministers originally thought of a simple solution; Grade 9 = 90%, down to Grade 1 =10% in 10% groupings allied to the number grade? Such a system would have been a radical change and meant comparisons with previous years were no longer possible. But, that has happened in the past, and as I made clear in the previous post, grades are a relatively recent invention, introduced only after examinations at sixteen became commonplace for all.

I was also interested in the quote from the secondary school heads association, ASCL that ‘GCSE exams are putting pupils’ mental health at risk, Young people taking a typical set of the reformed GCSEs will sit about eight hours more of exams than under the old system’. Such a comment doesn’t surprise me. However, if we are going to return to the degree of difficulty in examinations set for previous generations, do we also need to look at the number of public examinations those pupils sat and how the school timetable was arranged.

One of the trends ever since Matriculation and School Certificate disappeared in 1951 to become first GCEs and then GCSEs has been for students to take more subjects. This is allied to the debate about whether we want our young people to know more about less or less about more? A wider curriculum inevitably means many will struggle to obtain good grades across the board on the timings allowed within the school week if exams are made harder and comparable with when fewer subjects were studied; hence the possible growth in private tutoring to supplement the work of schools and the social disparity in achievement this creates. All this without any discussion on the competence of teachers in teaching their subject, a key discussion point in mathematics where there has been a teacher shortage.

Should we have say five hard GCSEs or nine relatively easier ones allowing time for physical activities and other non-examined subjects? This is a societal decision, but we may well be damaging our young people if we try to achieve both by making content harder and keeping the number of subjects the same. After all, there are still the same number of hours in a week.

What is the correct approach for twenty first century England. I suspect that secondary schools will eventually follow the primary sector in narrowing the curriculum to allow more time for the basics, especially English and mathematics. As a result, standards will rise in these subjects, but the curriculum will narrow. Will a narrower curriculum be welcome for many pupils or will they react in a manner that sees them become more disaffected? We shall see.


2 thoughts on “A grade or a pass?

  1. It is time to move from the out-dated system of high-stakes exams at 16 in favour of graduation at 18 via multiple routes. This is what happens in most major countries where exams at the end of lower secondary (age 15/16) are limited to core subjects (if they exist at all) and used to decide upper secondary progression (often combined with teacher assessment). Crucially, they are not used to judge schools.
    We adults have a responsibility not to overburden young people with a large number of exams – far more than we took at the same age – especially when the content is harder.

    • Janet,

      I was thinking of making that point but the post ran over 500 words so I thought it could wait until another time. I agree entirely and it would save schools money if we abandoned external exams at 16.


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