Once again this year there has been outcries that “grade boundaries” have been moved so that it is “harder” to get a grade C. Below, Ofqual goes through comparable outcomes and how it affects grade. And, here Pearson’s Lesley Davies explains the boundary setting process.

Our priority during summer awarding is to align standards between exam boards in each subject and over time.

In short, it should be no easier, or difficult, to get a particular grade with one board than another and, all things being equal, a student who got a particular grade in a subject this year could expect to have got the same grade in any other year.

It follows that if the cohort of students taking a qualification in one year is of similar ability to their predecessors then, overall, results should be comparable.

A student can expect to get the same grade this year as they did in any other year

Exam boards are responsible for all marking and awarding, but we oversee the process as the qualifications regulator. In practice that means exam boards must have awarding processes that meet our rules, as set out in our code of practice.

How does comparable outcomes work in practice?

The first step in awarding is for exam boards to produce a reference matrix on which to base performance predictions for the current cohort.

The reference matrix compares Key Stage 2 attainment with subsequent GCSE performance for previous cohorts. Likewise GCSE outcomes are compared with subsequent A level performance.

Exam board awarding committees use this evidence to predict the proportion of students that are likely to achieve, say, a grade C in GCSE maths this year, given their experience of this statistical relationship.

Other factors that might influence awarding are then also considered, such as comparisons of scripts on grade boundaries from current and previous years and reports from senior examiners on how exam questions have worked.

Using all this data helps maintain standards particularly during a period of transition to a new or changed qualification (for example from modular to linear GCSEs). It also means that we can judge whether standards are in line across exam boards.

The predictions are intended to guide awarding at the cohort (national) level and not predict the grades that individual candidates will receive. Individual students may do better, or worse, than their prior attainment would suggest for a number of reasons, and individual schools and colleges may therefore experience greater variation than observed at the national level.

We publish statistics on centre variability immediately after headline A level and GCSE results are released each August.

A check on exam board grades

Before any results are issued, exam boards send their expected results to us. They must provide evidence to justify any circumstances where their expected results are markedly different from their predictions.

We will then either accept the explanation or challenge the results if the argument is not backed by sufficient evidence. In this way, evidence of genuine improvement can be reflected through the comparable outcomes approach and students can have confidence that their results are a fair reflection of their performance.