The Vagaries of the Exam Board: What’s in a C?

Heads of English across the country must be feeling more than a little hard done by this evening. I certainly feel it and what’s worse, nothing I say to my students makes the fact that they didn’t achieve the grade they were on track to achieve any better. After all, I may be annoyed by the grade boundaries changing in English, but they have been on the phone checking to see whether they can still go into further education.

Changes to the grade boundaries in English have turned GCSE results day into a mini-clearing frenzy for A-Level courses that should have been ready and waiting for some students. The frustration they feel is horrible to watch and we, as their English teachers, can only watch and wait to see whether the decision to change the goalposts is reversed or ameliorated in any way. For some students who thought they were on track to achieve highly, it may be too late. Their college may have already turned them down, while AQA and the other exam boards, the DfE and Ofqual defend and debate their position on grade inflation. It doesn’t seem fair because, quite frankly it isn’t.

So what is it that has gone wrong? I don’t feel that any teacher in their right mind fundamentally disagrees with the concept of keeping exam marking fair. What grates is the enormity of the changes that have taken place recently in the English qualification. The introduction of controlled assessment has been a mess from the start. I attended several meetings run by AQA in which confused teachers were given conflicting information about how controlled assessment should be delivered and administrated. One examiner said one thing, another completely contradicted it, another shrugged his shoulders and said: “Well, I don’t agree with the way it has to be done, but we just go with what head office ask us to do.” There are details that should have been ironed out – the amount of ‘data’ required for the Spoken Language Study (“three pages” and “one set” and “no more than a side of A4”), the requirements for a ‘plan’ for the controlled assessment task (“a side of A4”, “not too detailed”, “just a few key words” and “attached to task” vs “on an official cover sheet”).

No one at the exam board seems to know what is going on. Even simple questions as to whether in a re-sit, the highest grade counts or the terminal grade counts, haven’t been answered exactly, Some schools have been told one thing, others, another.

For me, one standardisation meeting earlier this year stands out. An examiner from AQA said explicitly that if controlled assessment folders combined should reach a particular mark, that would be enough to gain a C grade, as that was what last year’s results indicated. There were at least seven schools represented at that meeting who heard him say that and took him at his word that the boundaries were the boundaries, subject to little or no change.

Standardisation materials and previous grade boundaries are used to indicate what grade a student might achieve if they have a certain level of skill. Schools are issued exemplar material to show what is expected at the different levels of attainment. What is the point of those, if within the space of five months, the grade boundaries are altered beyond all expectation?

It seems that the massive change in specifications and the introduction of controlled assessment, combined with pressure from the DfE to ‘control’ grades has inadvertently or otherwise shown that the exam boards cannot cope with their remit. And it is not the exam boards that suffer.

The important numbers have been splashed across network news – the gist of it is that if you submitted your controlled assessment and sat the exam in June (at the end of the series – something that Michael Gove has been recommending for a while now), the grade boundaries were significantly higher than if you did the same in January. I do not accept the argument that grade boundaries have been adjusted to account for the two different ‘series’ or sittings – with no indication that this was going to happen. I do not accept that the grade boundaries have to change significantly between two exams in five months – the papers were not that disparate in level of difficulty. What is worse for is the situation with controlled assessment – if you handed in the same tasks, with the same mark scheme used in June as others had done in January, you did not achieve the same results. If the tasks haven’t changed and the mark scheme hasn’t changed for the controlled assessment between January and June, why have the boundaries changed? It is very simple to me, as it must be to many English teachers out there. It is an arbitrary change designed to prevent accusations that GCSEs are too easy.

In saving themselves, AQA and the other major exam boards have damaged students chances of future success. What’s in a C? It’s not just a measure by which schools are placed in league tables – it is a passport to further education and higher education. Some people argue that GCSEs don’t matter anyway. However, in a climate of fierce competition for top university places it, GCSEs matter more and more. Some university courses look closely at GCSE results, particularly when deciding between A-Level candidates with similar grades. Medicine and Law courses often place GCSE requirements underneath A-Level entrance criteria.

More than anything, schools place enormous amounts of pressure on students and staff to achieve those C grades. That often means weekends, revision sessions after school, phone calls, extra materials, blood, sweat and tears to ensure that each child fulfils their potential. We pride ourselves on being accurate in our predictions and realistic in our expectations – we don’t predict Cs when they aren’t deserved. To have months of hard work on the part of staff and students washed away by the whims of an exam board that is creaking under the pressure of its own revolution is heartbreaking for all, especially when so much rides on the outcome.

There are voices asking for a review – Stephen Twigg has said that there should be an investigation by the Parliamentary Select Committee – but I’m not holding my breath. I’m needed in September to teach another cohort of GCSE students and my demise now would lead to even further instability.

The question that is hanging over our heads now is extremely demoralising. Next year, when we teach the specifications again (in their newest incarnation), can we with any level of accuracy say to a student that this is a C grade piece of work?

Well, no, because I thought I knew what that was – now, I can only say, this might be a C grade, or it might be a D grade – don’t ask me, because the exam board might decide I’m wrong. I don’t really want to see the look on that child’s face when I basically admit that I have no idea anymore.


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