As a result of the annual debate on standards I have been considering how best to compare the grades of current 16 year olds and those achieved by us oldies three decades ago.
When O-levels were introduce in the 1950s they were graded but the important point was whether you passed or failed. Another exam, the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE) was introduced later. A grade 1 in this exam was considered equivalent to an O level pass, Grade 4 represented the ability of the average 16 year old. Grades 2 & 3 were thus above average but not of O level standard. Grade 5 was below average but still considered worthy of recording. Anything below 5 was Unclassified. In 1975 the O-level grading system was changed. The old “pass” grades were replaced with A, B & C. Two further grades, D & E, which wre lower than the old pass but still represented above average ability for a 16 year old, now appeared on certificates. A few years later, the two exams were phased out and replaced with the General Certificate of Secondary Education.
Currently, approximately 60% of 16 year olds attain 5 or more A*-C passes, so C now represents an average achievement. 20 – 25% entered in a subject achieve A or A* so I think it reasonable to consider this the equivalent of the old pass grades. A student obtaining A* today may well have achieved an A in the past.
To get onto the old A-level you needed an O-level pass. These days, you have to do AS first. Obviously this is of lower standard than the A2 (as the exam taken at 18 is now known) but you still need a B at GCSE to gain a place on an AS course si it seems reasonable to me that B is clearly above average but of a lower standard than the old O-level pass.
A major difference now is that there are four “below average” grades (D, E, F & G) whereas in the past there was only one (the CSE grade 5). Assuning the CSE grades each covered roughly the same range I consider the modern D & E at best to be equivalent achievements to the old CSE grade 5.
In summary, then:-
GCSE grade O-Level grade CSE grade
A B/C 1
B D/E 2/3
C U 4
D/E U 5
F/G U U
My own achievement at age 16 was six O-levels (5 As and a B) plus 3 CSEs (2 2s and a 4). So using the above reasoning means I obtained the equivalent of 5 A*s, 1 A, 2 Bs and a C.
Which means the kids who obtained 8 A*s are still cleverer than me. Oh well…