Details about the new GCSE and A level courses continue to trickle out (; most Head Teachers are rather hoping that the syllabuses will be released well before rather than just before their staff have to begin teaching the courses. At GCSE, where the changes are likely to be more radical, new courses in Mathematics, English Language and English Literature are due to begin in September 2015 with most other subjects (including the Sciences which were originally part of the ‘pioneer’ group) scheduled to start in September 2016 or even 2017. The new courses will be graded from 9 to 1 (9 being the best and allowing for the future introduction of a ‘10’ should grade inflation take-off).

The outline seems clear enough; more traditional and slightly harder content with more emphasis on mathematical skills wherever possible. Almost all of the assessment will be by written paper at the end of the course as the government has become so suspicious of the validity of any other type of assessment (course work or its more respectable cousin Controlled Assessment). This seems a shame to me as, for example, practical skills in science can be robustly assessed through a practical examination and these skills are crucial for further study.

As so often, it is the assessment (grading of examinations) that is becoming the main battleground. How best to grade the marked scripts of thousands of hopeful teenagers? Two competing ideas have jockeyed for supremacy over many years.

The first is to norm reference grades so that a particular percentage of scripts gain a particular grade. (This tends to appeal to people of a competitive bent who perceive education and examinations as a sort of race, a means of filtering students into successes and failures rather than as a system to increase the skills and knowledge of all.) This is straightforward enough but suffers from the obvious criticism that the standard required may vary somewhat from year to year depending on the abilities of the candidates who enter. Whilst one might imagine that for popular subjects the number of students entering is so large that these fluctuations are vanishingly small, for subjects attracting smaller numbers of candidates this may not be the case. The scheme suffers from the philosophical objection that students should be graded by what they have achieved and not by what other students have achieved.

The second, equally venerable, idea is criterion referencing whereby a particular grade indicates that a certain level of skill or knowledge has been acquired (think driving test). The weakness here is how to accurately set a grade based on the criterion; just because a student has gained a particular number of marks on the examination paper, summed from a range of different questions, does not necessarily mean that they have mastered all of the skills and knowledge associated with this grade: they may have done spectacularly well on 1 question and disastrously on others. Currently, grades are set by committees of examiners who use statistical information from national tests like KS2 to decide how able the cohort of students is (do these tests allow for a meaningful year to year comparison?) and then they use their experience to try to ensure that a student who is producing C grade work genuinely gains a C grade (see here for a slightly murky exam board description of the process ). So, for example, to gain a grade C in English Language students should do the following, whatever mark they actually achieve. (The descriptor or criterion, for a mere C grade, seems quite demanding to me and probably above the standard of my own writing in this blog!):

‘Candidates’ writing shows successful adaptation of form and style to different tasks and for various purposes. They use a range of sentence structures and varied vocabulary to create different effects and engage the reader’s interest. Paragraphing is used effectively to make the sequence of events or development of ideas coherent and clear to the reader. Sentence structures are varied and sometimes bold; punctuation and spelling are accurate.’

(I shall have to work harder on my bold sentence structures.)

For the first year of the new number grades (summer 2017) the examination boards will use norm referencing to keep the percentages of the different grades the same as the previous year. A number 4 will be pegged as the same as a grade C and a number 7 will be pegged as an A grade. This means that a grade 5 will probably be equivalent to a high C (making it equivalent to a B grade would squash the range of the grade 6 and make it too hard for many students to obtain). Intriguingly the government will, somehow, link the 5 to the outcome of the international PISA tests. Whilst one can see the motivation for linking grades to international standards the implications of this notion are troubling. It appears that only the grade 5 is to be linked in this way so that the gaps between 4 and 5 and between 5 and 6 may vary from year to year depending on the performance of students in other countries! It is also unclear whether there is any correlation between GCSE grades and PISA results given that the tests are of such a different nature. (Whether it is right for the GCSE grade of a UK student to be partly determined by students taking different examinations in Shanghai is debatable). This leaves 8 and 9 at the top end of the performance league with around half (a norm referenced figure!) of the current A* graded students likely to achieve the 9. Interestingly the percentage of A* grades awarded currently varies alarmingly from subject to subject so it would appear that this will continue to be the case for the grade 9. (In summer 2013 5% of students gained an A* in Mathematics but only 3% in English whilst a whopping 33% of Classical subjects were graded A* perhaps because more able students choose to take the latter group of subjects). The examination board view of all this can be found here . Other subjects will stick with the traditional GCSE grades until they are reformed; students taking examinations in summer 2017 will receive a mix of number and letter grades making comparison between different subjects somewhat difficult.

This may all seem a bit arcane but if you are a current Year 8 student (S2 in Birkdale parlance) the details will become all too real over the next couple of years.