The Perse School

2017 – The Year When Letters Become Numbers

I had a life before I was a teacher.  It was as a security printer for De La Rue, working around the world producing bank notes.  Certain events were good for bank note printers they included: inflation (extra 0s to print); coups (new face on banknotes); and the introduction of new currencies (different denomination notes to design and print).

I learnt that one thing was essential to the success of a new currency and that was a very clear, defensible, and fair exchange rate between old and new monies.  Whilst currencies switch on a given day, there is usually a transition period in which ‘old money’ can be swapped for ‘new money’ such that both old and new banknotes have clearly understood and defined values.  Nobody suffers from having ‘old money’ and nobody is advantaged by holding the ‘new money’.

On the 24 August 2017 Ofqual will oversee the award of the first new 9 – 1 number grades for GCSEs in maths and English in England.  Over the next few years GCSEs and some IGCSE qualifications run by English awarding bodies (aka exam boards) will transition to the new number grades, and the A* / A – G letter grades used since the introduction of GCSE in 1986 will disappear.  However letter grades will continue for Welsh and Northern Irish GCSEs and for most IGCSEs sat outside the UK.

Students, universities and employers will thus have to contend with a confusing mix of number and letter grades depending on when a qualification was sat and where the awarding body was located.  This will take some explaining.

Unfortunately the explanation task is made harder by the lack of clear equivalences between the new number and old letter grading systems.  Ofqual have produced this table here to show how new and old grading systems are linked.  Direct comparisons are not straightforward – indeed the previous Head of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, warned against making them.  The highest number grade 9 has no direct letter equivalent as A* equates to both 8 and 9.  C grades in ‘old letter money’ could equate to either a 4 (bottom of C grade) or a 5 (top of C grade) in new number money with the government now defining a ‘good pass’ as a 5 grade or better.

There has to be a risk that with two different grading systems and complex equivalencies, misunderstandings will occur, and some students may be unfairly advantaged or disadvantaged in job and university applications.  Given the extent and complexity of the grading changes there is certainly the need for a comprehensive communication plan to educate teachers, students, parents, employers and universities about what the changes mean.

At the top of the number system is a new 9 grade which is rightly or wrongly being described as the equivalent of ‘A**’.  I worry about this.  GCSE is a universal exam accessible to all 16 year olds and as such it has to differentiate across the entire ability range.  Given the breadth of this assessment challenge, the ability to differentiate accurately and reliably in all subjects at the very top of the ability spectrum (i.e. amongst the 8.9% of entries awarded at A* in 2016) may be compromised.

There is a risk that in exam raw marks, the difference between an 8 or 9 could be very small, so small that it could fall within exam marker tolerance levels – i.e. if you get a slightly more generous (but still acceptable) marker you may get 2 more marks across the paper and end up with a 9, whereas if you get a slightly stricter (but still acceptable) marker you may get 2 marks less across the paper and end up with an 8.

There is also a more fundamental question about how much top end differentiation is needed or desirable at 16.  In 2016 28.9% of GCSE entries were graded C, so given the size of the C grade population there are good arguments for subdividing it into two as the new numbering system does.  But the A% population is smaller (8.9% of entries were graded at A*) so the need for differentiation is less.  Add to this concerns about the accuracy of A* differentiation, and one has to wonder whether the new 9 grade will bring more problems than it solves.  The pursuit of a 9 and the worries about whether it can be accurately awarded, will add to the pressures high achieving pupils face and will be a further source of anxiety which can compromise student wellbeing.

Given that students in the A* category will virtually all go on to study higher level qualifications post 16, should we leave top end differentiation to those exams which by definition do not assess the whole ability range and are therefore better placed to make ‘finely tuned’ grade assessments?


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