Exams expert: Combining grades from different subjects poses a risk in terms of quality

At the present time, teachers across Northern Ireland are engaged in a process of ‘moderation,’ designed to generate GCSE and A-Level grades in which the public can have confidence.

Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 7:14 pm
Updated Tuesday, 18th May 2021, 7:23 pm
Teachers across Northern Ireland are engaged in a process of moderation, designed to generate GCSE and A-Level grades

Ofqual and the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) have published their approach to quality-assuring the 2021 GCSE and A-Level grades.

At its heart is a comparison between the grades assigned via teacher judgement in a particular ‘centre’ (ie. school), and the historical record of that centre in GCSE and A-Level in the ‘exam years’ from 2017 to 2019.

According to Ofqual, “Exam boards will compare a centre’s results and select centres where the proportion of grades in 2021 appears significantly higher or lower than results in previous years when exams took place – 2017, 2018 and 2019.”

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Dr Hugh Morrison , formerly of Queen’s University, Belfast, is a mathematician, educationalist and examinations expert

Ofqual go on to advise, “The comparison for a centre will be made at qualification level – for all GCSE subjects combined and A-Level subjects combined.”

The decision to combine grades from different subjects renders the quality assurance process for the 2021 grades highly problematic.

Take, for instance, the proportion of GCSE candidates in a particular school who secured a grade B in the years 2017 to 2019.

To compute this proportion, one would have to treat a grade B in German as representing the same standard as a grade B in ICT.

This involves treating as quantitatively equal, what is qualitatively different. (Grades are ‘relational’ attributes which, when added across a range of subjects, produce meaningless numbers.)

The same critique applies unchanged to the proportion of B grades in the 2021 distribution of the school’s predicted grades.

It follows that the process which quality-assures the 2021 grading process comes down to the comparison of pairs of meaningless numbers (one comparison per grade).

Dr Mike Cresswell CBE — one-time CEO of the AQA Examination Board — is widely regarded as the UK’s leading expert on standards in public examinations.

In an article published in 2000 in Proceedings of the British Academy, he addresses precisely this issue: “… we require a Grade C in Mathematics to represent comparable attainment to a Grade C in Physics, a Grade C in English, ... and a Grade C in Art. This requirement implies some way of making direct quantitative comparisons of candidates’ attainments across disparate subjects.

“This is impossible” (p 72).

• Dr Hugh G Morrison , formerly of Queen’s University, Belfast, is a mathematician, educationalist and examinations expert

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