Taking a closer look at GCSE English Language

  By Philip Blaker, Chief Executive, Qualifications Wales 

We’ve recently taken a close look at the standard in GCSE English Language. We were aware of concerns among some schools following results, and that some had seen a drop in results in GCSE English Language. We wanted to understand why and to check whether or not the number of marks at certain grade boundaries reflected a shift in the standard expected at certain key grades – particularly grade C.

This was a deep dive into the way boundaries had been set for the summer 2018 exams. In the end, after scrutinising all the evidence carefully, we found that key decisions had been taken in the right way. That means that as the independent regulator, we’re confident that the standard for 2018 was consistent with last year and the grade boundaries were set properly.

Grade boundaries are sometimes misunderstood. They show the minimum marks a candidate must get to reach a particular grade. Because exam papers are set for each exam series - and are different each time - grade boundaries go up and down to fairly reflect an exam’s level of difficulty. Grade boundaries are set using a combination of examiner judgement and statistical evidence – a process explained in our report.

It’s a complex area to understand, and it’s easy to misinterpret. People assume there are quotas for each grade, so only a certain percentage of students can achieve a given grade. It’s not the case – if a candidate achieves the grade boundary minimum mark, they will get that grade.

We approached the investigation with an open mind. Although individual schools may have seen variation in their results, the standard at the national level was stable.

We saw an interesting statistical relationship between centre entry practice and results. The relationship differs across grades. On average, centres that entered candidates early and/or repeatedly had slightly lower outcomes at grades A* and A, and slightly higher outcomes at grade C.

One of the concerns raised was that a school’s entry strategy might have affected results, with schools who entered candidates early being advantaged. We looked at this carefully and saw that regardless of whether a school entered candidates early or not, there was a similar level of variation in the results they received. We also saw that the level of variation was less this year than last year.

Importantly, the variation in school’s results this summer is not the result of inconsistent standards being applied - we are confident that the same standard has been carried across from 2017 to 2018. However, we are concerned that schools’ entry strategies over recent years do not promote a level playing field for students.

The action taken by Welsh Government to discourage widespread early entry has helped to substantially reduce the levels of early entry that we saw last summer. We welcome these developments because they are likely to lead to more stable results in future years that will help to promote fairness for all students and users of qualifications. 

We will scrutinise in this sort of detail where we feel there is a significant, fundamental question to address. As the independent regulator, the decision to do it is ours. Whether we do it again in future - in this or other subjects - will depend on whether or not we think there could be implications at national level.

Our job is to ensure that a single standard is maintained across the nation and across time. In the end, that’s what really matters in fairness to students past, present and future.

Read the full report here.