A Few Comments on Last Week’s GCSE ResultsAugust 29, 2013
I wrote so much last year about the GCSE results and the English farrago, the most controversial parts of which were vindicated by subsequent events, that people had been asking me in the weeks leading up to this year’s results whether anything interesting was going to happen. The answer, of course, was “no”. The fuss last year relied on the element of surprise. Too many schools failed to realise that, in the absence of grade inflation, their results were as likely to go down as up and that manipulating results around the borderline was unlikely to work as well as it had in the past. This year most knew this and had got their excuses in first. Ofqual had also made an effort to lower expectations thereby ensuring that what actually happened was, if anything, better than expected.
To begin with, much of the comment in the media suggested results had gone down, which is true if you look at the proportion of GCSEs passed at grade C or above. It gradually emerged that when you looked at year 11 results only, grade Cs had gone up slightly in English and maths and that more students had been entered for harder exams. When results are finally collated it seems likely that the number of students with A*-C in 5 subjects including English and maths will have gone up. Also, given the increase in entries for Ebacc subjects, it is likely (but not inevitable, as science results were down significantly) that the number of students achieving the Ebacc will have gone up. Overall, it was a lot less scary than expected.
What controversy there has been this year has been over the growth in early entry, i.e. students taking their exams early and resitting until they get their target grade. Remarkably, this has been seized upon even by those who have seemed most hostile to GCSE reform. There are two main causes:
1) Modularisation. The changes in GCSEs in the last few years have encouraged early entry. Partly, it’s that the modular exams themselves have encouraged it. Although there were limits on how many times you could retake modules before cashing in your GCSE, there were in some cases rules that meant those students who had sat their terminal exam early, could resit their GCSE with some of the modules from the first time they took it still counting. If students had good results in their earlier modules, they could resit their terminal module as many times as they liked. Other rules about meant that, instead of having a particular terminal exam, any set of exams in which students sat 40% of their GCSE could count as a terminal exam (and there would also be a chance to take a linear GCSE then). This meant that there were simply more sittings in a year where students could take a GCSE. I know of one school where students were entered for their maths GCSE 4 times in year 11 alone (although this did involve making use of the slightly different exam time table of the Welsh exam board WJEC). The link between modular exams and early entry has been utterly missed by some commentators who have condemned the efforts to end modularisation at the same time as condemning early entry. Fortunately, modules are on their way out, and while this won’t end early entry, it is going to curtail the insane levels we have seen this year but strangely enough, nobody seems to want to give the government or Ofqual any credit for this.
2) The end to grade inflation. It is, however, true that the measures to stop grade inflation will also have encouraged early entry. When exams were getting easier in each sitting it would have made sense to concentrate one’s efforts on the later sittings. When grade inflation ended that ceased to be the case. Because of this, some have blamed the rise in early entries on Ofqual and the government. I think this is fair enough, however, anyone who uses this argument to attribute blame needs to be entirely clear that, for their argument to make sense, they must be explicitly supporting exams being made easier every time. As ever with the issue of grade inflation, those who implicitly support it, seem very reluctant to spell that out, they simply oppose every attempt to stop it and complain about the consequences of stopping it.