Are GCSEs getting easier? Three quick thoughts & a Mount Everest metaphor…

by Stephen Tall on June 26, 2012

My anointing of Michael Gove as CentreForum’s ‘Liberal Hero of the Week’ triggered a few responses, a handful of them positive. One of the most interesting responses was posted by LonWon on his Hoping for more than Slogans blog, in which he (not unreasonably) took me to task for my statement ‘the reality is that [GCSEs] are easier than a generation ago’. I stand by the comment, but it deserves to be explained more fully than I did in that post. So here goes…

    The “GCSEs are getting easier” statement covers a range of issues folk have with them:

    1) Are the exams easier? I don’t think there’s been an academic study to assess this for GCSEs. But there has been for A-levels (Durham University), which concluded “the ability level corresponding to the same grades are going down each year”. This was equated to a move of 2 additional grades over the years (ie, a C now worth an A). However, the report notes there’s potentially multiple reasons for that, including modular courses allowing multiple re-sitting to improve grades, and a move towards more extensive multiple choice and short written answer requirements, and away from longer form answers / essays.

    2) Then there’s the issue of ‘grade inflation’ – even if the exams are of the same standard, that the marks are more lenient than in the past. Again, the simple stats are undeniable: in the first year of GCSE (’88) 42.5% received an A*-C compared to 69.8% in ’11. What we don’t know is the extent to which that’s driven by improvements in teaching and/or teachers ‘teaching to the test’ and/or kids getting smarter. On the latter, the international PISA league tables show the UK’s absolute performance to be patchy, while its relative performance in relation to other countries declines.

    3) Some subjects are easier than others to get good GCSE grades – there is evidence for this, with Durham in 2007 showing there was more than one grade’s difference between Spanish and German against drama, textiles or media studies. To be clear, this referred to the grading of the exams not the content of the course. However, I think it’s optimistic to reckon that the result of this would have been to toughen up the grades for those subjects found to be easier – more likely, the exam boards loosened the marking for the harder subjects.

Finally, it’s well worth reading this brief survey of the exam standards issues by Cambridge Assessments (pdf). And as a counter to some of my more sober conclusions above, here’s a rather more colourful and optimistic take:

Professor Gordon Stobart agreed that the standards over time debate “goes nowhere” and should be abandoned. He compared exam standards with climbing Mount Everest, saying:

“In 1953 two people got to the top of Everest, an extraordinary achievement at the time. Yet on a single day in 1996, 39 people stood on the summit. That might suggest that Everest had become 20 times easier to climb. Yet the mountain remains the same height. Of course, today people have better equipment, better training, better nutrition and so on. In that sense, it is less surprising that more people can climb Everest. But while that may make the achievement less exceptional, it does not change the ‘standard’ of the mountain climbing achievement.”