Exam Results Still Mean Something

Well, last week the GCSE results came out and they became the usual political football. Despite my previously stated views on  the Twenty First Century Science syllabus, I am not among those who consider the GCSEs to be meaningless.

I would agree that a Grade C now is not the same as a Grade C 30 years ago. In those days, Grade C was the equivalent of an O-level pass or CSE Grade 1, which was achieved by only a small number of candidates. These days about 60% of students achieve 5 or more Grade Cs or better. In times gone by, a CSE Grade 4 was the average achievement of the 16 year age group for each subject. So it seems fair to say that the modern grades A*, A, B & C cover the same range as the O-level A, B & C and CSE grades 2, 3 & 4. i.e. the four modern grades cover the same ability range as 6 grades did thirty years ago. As a result of this, each grade covers a much wider ability range than used to be the case. These days 20 to 25 percent of candidates in each subject attain A or A*.

This has caused pundits in the press to be dismissive of the achievement of those students who obtain eight such grades. This dismissiveness is not justified. To achieve A or better, students must be in the top quartile of the ability range. As such, they might reasonably be considered capable of achieving a pass at the old O-level. Eight O-level passes was considered an excellent achievement when I was at school.

A final thought. I cannot help notice that the newspapers most dismissive of the achievements of modern teenagers are also those with high woo content in their pages. I wonder whether those who fanned the flames of the MMR-autism scare, or those who think microwaves have something to do with radioactivity and publish scare-stories based on that error, or uncritically publish homeopathy puff-pieces, have the intellectual ability to pass a school science exam from any era since the Enlightenment.


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5 Responses to “Exam Results Still Mean Something”

  1. pyjamasinbananas Says:

    “I would agree that a Grade C now is not the same as a Grade C 30 years ago. In those days, Grade C was the equivalent of an O-level pass or CSE Grade 1, which was achieved by only a small number of candidates.”

    Surely this is a given? The whole point of the GCSE is that it is a combination of the GCE (O Level) and CSE. As far as I’m aware, it was always intended that A-C included the ability range of the old O Level (and upper ‘equivalent’ CSE grades), while D-G covered the rest of the old CSE range.

    So it would be disingenuous to imply that grade C at GCSE has been devalued. There might be an argument to be made about GCE A Level qualifications where there seems to be some grade inflation, but agai, there have been points where the grades have been explicitly and deliberately revalued (such as the introduction of the A2 qualification and change to the AS under ‘Curriculum 2000’).

  2. pyjamasinbananas Says:

    Ah, I see I’ve misunderstood – you’re arguing that CSE grades 2-4 and O Level D and E are subsumed under the current A-C.

    But I think your figures are incorrect. While I have read that CSE grade 4 was supposed to represent the ‘average’ cohort achievement I’ve seen figures from 1968 that suggest that some 15% achieved grade 1, and 95% grade 5 or better. Now obviously participation rates were lower (I seem to recall something like 40% did not take any exams at 15/16, including my Dad), but they don’t seem to be consistent with your figures.

  3. pyjamasinbananas Says:

    Finally, I think those educated under the GCE A Level and O Level system of yesteryear ought not to be too smug since, while the number of entries for these exams massively increased from the 1950s up to the late 1980s the proportion awarded each grade remained the same. A fact that can be used to bemoan the falling standards of the A Level such that a pass in 1987 cannot hope to be compared with that of 1951.

  4. kelvinthroop Says:

    I don’t think I am being smug. The whole point of this post and the following one is that the achievements of many modern teenagers are highly credible.

    Despite what I think about what they’re being taught in at least one subject.

  5. pyjamasinbananas Says:

    i wasn’t accusing you of being smug, just pointing out that this is not a new phenomenon.

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