GCSE re-sits: ‘Wrong’ grades drain students and resources

Ofqual’s own methodology shows the re-sits policy is wrongly affecting enough students to fill a moderately-sized stadium every season, writes Dennis Sherwood

Ofqual’s own methodology shows the re-sits policy is wrongly affecting enough students to fill a moderately-sized stadium every season, writes Dennis Sherwood

31 Jan 2023, 17:00

The November 2022 GCSE English and maths results announced on 12 January reveal a huge problem at the heart of the re-sit policy.

The summer and autumn English cohort sizes are significantly different (697,827 and 41,529 respectively) but the difference in the grade distributions is stark. In November, 42.7 per cent of candidates received grade 3, and 23.1 per cent grade 4, as compared with 17.2 per cent and 16.0 per cent in the summer. This clustering of the November results around the 3/4 boundary is no surprise; these exams are taken largely by candidates obliged to re-sit because they were previously awarded grade 3.

The problem is a more fundamental one. What the autumn grade distribution hides is that many candidates are forced through the distressing experience of re-sitting, not because they didn’t work hard enough or had a bad day, but because their grade was wrong.

Don’t take my word for it. In September 2020, Dame Glenys Stacey, then Ofqual’s chief regulator, admitted to the education select committee that exam grades are “reliable to one grade either way”.

Should that grade 3 have been a 2? Or a 4? No one knows. But what the candidate knows is that there is a world of difference between a 3 and a 4; Only one represents many more months in the classroom and another trip into the exam hall.

Dame Glenys’s statement can be quantified. In November 2018, Ofqual published measures of just how (un)reliable grades are: their report showed that about 61 per cent of the grades awarded in England for GCSE English language correspond to the ‘definitive’ or ‘true’ grade that would have been awarded had a senior examiner marked all the scripts. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough senior examiners, so ‘ordinary’ examiners do the bulk of the job. As a consequence, around 39 per cent of grades aren’t ‘definitive’ or ‘true’. In other words, they could be just plain wrong.

It’s a tragic waste of time students could be investing elsewhere

Importantly, this difference in grades is not attributable to marking errors. Rather, it is a consequence of a reality we are all aware of: different examiners can legitimately give the same script different marks. If those legitimate-but-different marks are on different sides of a grade boundary, the resulting grades will be different –  but only one will be ‘definitive’.

We’re discussing English here, but let’s do some maths.

According to JCQ, for the summer 2022 GCSE English exams, 17.2 per cent of 697,827 candidates received grade 3: That’s 120,026 candidates who have to re-sit (not counting those with lower grades, who aren’t impacted by this argument).

Ofqual’s measure of the reliability of GCSE English grades implies that only about 61 per cent of those 120,026 candidates received a ‘definitive’ grade 3, while 39 per cent – that’s 46,810 students – were awarded a ‘non-definitive’/‘untrue’/‘wrong’ grade.

This means up to a huge 46,810 students were awarded grade 3 (a de facto ‘fail’) in error. The grade errors are about the same both ways, so around 23,405 students should have been awarded a grade 2, and some 23,405 grade 4, and would never have had to re-sit – if only their paper had been marked by a senior examiner.

Nevermind the shocking waste of FE resources being squandered on re-teaching more than 23,000 students who didn’t need it. But for those more than 23,000 students, it’s a tragic waste of time they could be investing in their chosen pursuits.

And this is just one example of the consequences of Ofqual’s failure to deliver reliable grades, one that happens every exam season.

Unreliable grades are a menace, and the easiest fix is for all certificates to declare, using Ofqual’s own words:


And if we accept that, then pursuing a policy to ensure all students study maths to 18 must surely be based on a better proposition than ensuring a high proportion attain a more acceptable – but also unreliable – grade.

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