I seem to have become our school’s “expert” (those inverted commas are most definitely needed) on the new-style GCSE grading (9 – 1 rather than A*-G) and what it will mean. I’ve now addressed parents of three different year groups, Heads of Department (twice) and our Governors (once) on this.
Why am I the “expert”? I guess largely through not being frightened of a formula that indicates how many grade 9s will be awarded in a subject. It’s not that scary a formula, honest – but its very formula-ness seems to strike fear into the hearts of some.
Said formula is intended to allow a higher proportion of 9s (the absolute top grade) to those subjects which already have a more able cohort sitting them (like the separate sciences, modern languages, Latin, Greek etc). That makes sense to me – if you don’t have any significant number of really weak kids doing Latin, then you’d expect a higher proportion of all the candidates doing it will get top grades.
Whether the whole system makes sense, however, is another matter. On the face of it, having more discrimination at the top end does make some sort of sense to me, in some ways – I know in my subject there can be a huge difference in ability between two candidates who get an A*.
In practice? Much less convinced. Whether or not we should have had as many of the A* grades awarded at GCSE as we did – that’s what we’ve all been used to for a good while now. Setting a new, super-demanding top grade, at the same time as deliberately toughening up the exams, is automatically going to pressurise both kids and teachers, and I am not at all sure the gains are worth the losses. If you are one of those high-achieving, super-anxious kids (and it is usually girls) – if your older sister got a whole clutch of A*, and you don’t get a similar clutch of 9s, chances are you will feel a bit of a failure, whatever anyone says to try to stop it (and explaining how much harder the 9 will be to get than the A* was is a key feature of all those talks I’ve been doing).
I’m also concerned that if the threshold for a 9 becomes numerically very high, then it starts being less reliable – getting 95 rather than 96 probably says little about your ability – one minor “2 + 2 is 5” mistake could do that – but if that robs you of your 9, it becomes a big deal. The grades need to be reasonably wide bands of raw marks for them to be “safe”.
Then, of course, we have the changing demands by stealth… the new Grade 4 is pegged to be equivalent to the old C grade. So logic says, where league tables referred to A*-C, they should now refer to 9-4. But no… they are going to count 9-5 as “good passes”. So yet more schools will start being blamed for “poor” results, when actually even enabling some of these kids to get a 4 on the new tougher exam was a huge achievement.
One other potential daftness someone pointed out to me was the prospect of schools trying to game the system in terms of what subjects to offer. The way this goes is: they see a higher proportion of people get the top grades in Latin. So maybe we’d see “let’s enter our weak kids for Latin, they’ll have a better chance”!!!! Now I really hope this doesn’t happen – obviously it’s not a good educational choice for those kids if they wouldn’t otherwise have done it. The system should be proof against such tactics – boundary setting does have room in it for professional judgement, not just statistical measures, so flooding the market with weaker candidates shouldn’t result in too many getting top grades they don’t deserve – but I could imagine it causing a bit of disturbance in the short term.
One feature of my talk is an estimate of the grade distribution we might expect under the new system. Needless to say I do not expect this to be spot on – individual variation is always going to come in, as it always does, I’m making assumptions about where our kids are within their current grades, and who knows what adjustments the exam boards will make when it comes to it. But whenever I produce this, the reaction seems to be as if I’d pulled out a crystal ball and magicked up a vision of the future, rather than just done some simple number crunching.
Why are adults – people in possession of a pass grade in O-level or GCSE maths – so awestruck by formulae, statistics etc? And why – the flipside of this tendency to be awestruck – do they treat the results of some very simple mathematical modelling as if brought down from Mount Sinai carved on tablets of stone? Maybe I need a new mission as a maths teacher – to stop adults being intimidated or bamboozled by figures – the kids are much better!