How exam boards make sure GCSE and A level results are on a ‘level playing field’

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, Pearson’s Lesley Davies explains the boundary setting process. And, here, Ofqual goes through comparable outcomes and how it affects grade.

The process of setting grade boundaries can seem complicated and be easily misinterpreted.

It’s not unusual each summer, as GCSE and A level exams are taken and results published, to see complaints and rumours in the media about exam boards moving grade boundaries “unfairly” for certain papers, or students “being disadvantaged” by a question they found tricky.

Despite the fact that maths and English GCSE results were broadly stable at the national level this year (something to be welcomed by everyone in education), the debate surrounding our ‘Hannah’s Sweets’ question in June and some schools seeing shifts in their English and Maths results are cases in point.

When these debates arise it shows that exam boards, the exam regulator Ofqua,l and others need to do more to help parents and students understand the processes we have in place to ensure a level playing field within our exam system.

Qualifications have to be a valid currency; a confirmation of a level of achievement that enables those who have taken it to progress in education or in to the workplace.

Colleges, universities and employers will be comparing candidates who have taken qualifications in different years. So it’s vital that, for the system to work, the grades that indicate the level of achievement mean the same thing, whatever year the qualification was taken.

Exam boards work hard to set exam papers and coursework tasks with the same level of difficulty year on year. But, in reality, exam papers and coursework tasks almost always turn out to be marginally harder or easier than previous assessments because of the different subject matter and questions that are asked.

Still, it should be no easier or harder to get an A grade this year from last year. This is why all exam boards set new grade boundaries each year, for each qualification.

This is a thorough process, led by a team of subject specialists who oversee the process for each qualification, including our most senior examiners (usually a highly respected teaching colleague with many years of teaching and examining experience in the subject) and statistical experts.

They review all the data available to make an informed decision on where the grade boundaries should fall each year, including:

– Detailed feedback from examiners about overall student performance on the paper and each individual question in it

– A thorough review of student performance in question papers from previous years

– A review of work produced by students in previous exam sessions

– Statistical analysis which can tell us, for example, the average mark from each exam and student performance around the specific grade boundaries

– Prior attainment data for the cohort to review the total number of students we would expect to achieve each grade in that age group.

The final grade boundary decision goes through an extensive series of checks and reviews, to ensure that all the evidence has been appropriately considered. It is also monitored by Ofqual, the qualifications regulator, which also ensures that the grading between awarding bodies is in line.

This process is incredibly important as it ensures a level playing field – it means that a student who performed to the same level should get the same grade, whether they sat the exam this year or last year and regardless of the exam board with whom they took their exam.

Further information about understanding marks and grades can also be found online here.

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