April 2014 - Ofqual: Setting Grade Standards of new GCSEs


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Executive summary


From September 2015, 14 years olds in England will start studying for new GCSEs. These will be graded 9−1 rather than A*−G as are current GCSEs. We are seeking your views on the way the standards of these qualifications should be set. 

New GCSEs in English language, English literature and maths will be introduced first; more subjects will follow from September 2016. The first new qualifications will be awarded in summer 2017 (2018 for those subjects taught from 2016).

There is already keen interest in the standard of the new qualifications and how the grading system will work, especially amongst school leaders and teachers.

We are now setting out and seeking views on (a) our proposed approach to setting and maintaining performance standards for new GCSEs and (b) how the grading system will work.

In section 1 we explain that:

  • the standards of a qualification are determined by its content, the way it is assessed and the level of performance required to achieve each grade;
  • the breadth and depth of the subject content of the new GCSEs will typically be more demanding than that for current GCSEs; and
  • more assessment in new GCSEs will be by exam than is now the case.

In section 2 we explain that grade standards for GCSEs are currently set using a combination of statistical evidence and examiner judgement. We consider two other known approaches to standard setting, known respectively as the criterion referenced and norm-referenced approaches. We explain the advantages and disadvantages of each of them before proposing to set the standards of the new qualifications using a strengthened version of our current approach.

In section 3 we explain our proposal that in the first year in which new GCSEs are awarded, grade boundaries should be set so that students who would previously have been expected to be awarded a grade C or above will be awarded a grade 4 or above. This approach will:

  • protect the interests of students taking the new GCSEs in the first year;
  • provide a reference point to help understanding of how the new grades relate to the current ones; and
  • allow greater discrimination between students who currently achieve a grade C or above, as they will be able to be awarded one of six grades (4–9) rather than one of four (C–A*).

We are considering additional points at which the performance standard for the new qualifications could be linked to that for the current qualifications, at the higher and lower ends of the grading scale.

We propose benchmarking the grade 5 performance standard to that required for exams that serve similar purposes in countries whose students perform well in international tests. We consider how the standard of the remaining grades might be set.

We go on to outline our proposed approach to standard setting in future years, including our plans to introduce a new national reference test.  

In section 4 we explain that it is for Government, higher and further education institutions and employers to decide what new GCSEs grades they will require or expect of students. We also explain the additional choice of grades provided by the new grade range.

Section 5 is the initial equality analysis that considers whether any of the options and proposals might have a positive or negative impact on people with a particular protected characteristic as defined by the Equality Act 2010. 

Published: 12/09/2014, by Ellie Cotgrave
Last Updated: 27/01/2016, by Sam Henson