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The reporting of GCSE exam results

The GCSE exams that are taken by 16 year olds in England and Wales are marked on a scale according to a marking scheme and two maths teachers marking copies of the same script will probably agree to within a mark or so. The raw scores are then 'binned' into letter grades. Grade C or above in a GCSE subject is usually taken as a 'pass', and anything below grade C is regarded as a fail. The lowest raw exam mark corresponding to a grade C is known as the C/D boundary and is a matter of some concern to students and teachers. The grade boundaries may move up or down a few marks from exam to exam because of issues with the readability of a question, or the balance of difficult topics.

In the EdExcel Maths Linear A Maths exams taken at Foundation level in June 2012, a raw score of 130 or more corresponds to a grade C, and a score of 106 or more up to 129 is a Grade D. I have a student who scored 131, and another who scored 128. One gets a grade C and can go to university, the other gets a grade D and has to spend a year retaking the Maths exam. I personally would be hard put to find any evidence of a difference of mathematical ability between these two students. The degree subjects that the students wish to study do not require sophisticated mathematical understanding.

I am coming round to the idea that we should report the raw percentages on the certificates.

A note to politicians

According to the BBC, the percentage of candidates achieving A* to C letter grades in Maths droped from 58.8% in 2011 to 58.4% this summer, a shift of 0.4% on approximately 700 000 entries. By my arithmetic, that corresponds to roughly 2 800 less C grades and 2 800 more D grades. There has been no great outcry and the pitchforks have remained in the barn, the torches unlit.

In English GCSE, the percentage of candidates achieving A* to C has dropped from 65.5% to 64.2%, a shift of 1.3% or about 9 100 less grade Cs. There is also some evidence that that vital C/D grade boundary may have shifted over the year depending on when the classroom based 'controlled assessment' was moderated. There are a large number of people (aka 'stakeholders') who are very unhappy about this.

The GCSE English grade matters a lot to those students moving from school to Further Education College hoping to study a Level 3 BTEC Diploma or similar. Admissions requirements include 5 GCSE subjects, one of which must be English. The kind of student likely to be affected by this change in pass rate is the kind of student who traditionally attends an F.E. College.

Keith Burnett, Last update: Tue Aug 28 2012