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Ofqual review finds no reason to regrade English GCSEs

Qualifications regulator Ofqual has refused to order exam boards to regrade this summer’s GCSEs in English, after acknowledging that marking boundaries had changed between January and June.

Following another year of change to the GSCE exam system, Ofqual had been obliged to investigate complaints from the many students who received an unexpected change to their predicted results.

The exams under scrutiny, GCSEs English, English Language, and English Literature, have changed from previous years to consist of supervised coursework worth 60%, which can be split into stages during the year, and a final assessment of 40% to be taken at the end of the course. Despite slight changes, Ofqual stated that the standard set for these English GSCEs is comparable with the standard of previous years, and the drop in results of 1.5 percentage points is “in line with expectations”.

Ofqual put this visible drop in results down to “a complex set of circumstances”, which acted in synchrony to “create an unusual situation for schools, colleges and their students”.

Firstly, what Ofqual called the inevitable challenges of new qualifications left a deficit in understanding of the 2010 GCSE English suite, which led many to misinterpret last January’s results. It is the January grade boundaries that Ofqual mostly blamed for the exam’s controversial summer, as this was the first point of grading for the new exams that should have set the tone for the rest of the year.

Ofqual highlighted the change to the syllabus to be the primary reason for the difficulties experienced by markers, despite complaints that no syllabus should have been changed if there was not a strict marking procedure firmly in place to protect students’ interests. What could not have been so easily predicted, however, was the extent to which January’s exam performance could contrast with that in June.

The regulator also blamed the modulisation of marking on the courses for causing confusion during the final exams.

Its report stated: “Modularisation creates a particular difficulty with maintaining standards in graded qualifications. We have already announced that we will be moving away from a modular system for GCSEs in England after the forthcoming school year. We believe that this year’s experience shows that this was the right decision for students in England.”

This means that instead of working to fix the grading for an already overhauled exam system, the entire structure of exams is going to be changed.

Ofqual also stated that the grading problems were made because of “the nature of English as a subject”, and that subject specific examiners “have found that setting standards in English, in new qualifications, is difficult.”

Despite these general problems with the new exam system, the main cause for concern arose from the written assessment for January exams that changed in June, which is to be expected. What is not, however, is the change in grade boundaries for the June exams, after the January exam boundary was deemed too generous. Ofqual found this to have had “minimal direct impact”, however, as the majority of schools submitted their written assessment pieces.

Ofqual’s studies revealed that schools were using the grade boundaries and results as a guide for how the June exams would be marked, which, given the lack of other sources of information concerning these new exams, seemed a logical step to take. Thus the generous marking in January had an impact upon the results of June exams.

One consolation offered is that, as usual, for both A levels and GCSEs, students can appeal to have an individual script rechecked. This service costs, however, and this is an expenditure that students do not recuperate unless a grade boundary is surpassed. Ofqual also offered affected students the opportunity to resit their exams.

Whether learners wish to take resits in January 2013, or take advantage of the “exceptional, one-off, re-sit opportunity” in November 2012, they run the risk of losing out on employment, Further Education and even university places based on the results of these exams. Entry onto many A level courses require at least a B grade at GCSE, while most colleges require a minimum of five C grades at GCSE, with many courses requiring one of these to be English. Further still, some students aiming to advance their education and careers do not have the time to humour exam trial runs. Ofqual’s report could therefore be seen as missing a selling point for students who have worked for two years towards exams that have culminated in a disappointingly unclear reflection of their predicted grades.

Daisy Atkinson

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