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Results Remain Steady During GCSE and A Level Reforms

By Tiffani Razavi, Tie Staff Writer

General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE) and A level results published in August show that performance across both sets of examinations, despite a range of reforms, is consistent with previous years.
GCSE entries across all subjects increased this year, rising 3.9 percent to just over 5.4 million, according to the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) in the U.K. English Language and English Literature entries especially rose, by 48.1 and 38.6 percent, respectively.
Influencing these changing entry patterns is a significant shift, especially in both English subjects, from the IGCSE to the GCSE following changes to performance measures. Cambridge International Examinations (CIE), the board solely responsible for the exams, did not release pass rates or statistics for the IGCSE this year.
“As expected, entries from state schools have fallen substantially as a result of the government’s decision to exclude IGCSEs from U.K. performance tables,” said a spokesperson for CIE. “Consequently, this cohort is significantly smaller than last year’s and therefore the data is no longer comparable.” She reported that the total number of IGCSE entries for this year was around 110,000, compared to just over 300,000 entries in 2016.
The Office of Qualifications and Examinations Regulation (Ofqual) describes the reformed GCSE exams as having more demanding subject content than the qualifications they replace, though the report adds that with good teaching they are accessible to the same proportion of students. The reforms also include a shift to all the assessments being taken at the end of the course by examination, and a new grading scheme from 9 (best-performing students) to 1, to allow for more differentiation among the highest achievers.
The results of this summer were the first to be awarded according to this new performance scheme, and Ofqual emphasizes that “Grade 9 is not the same as A; it is a new grade, designed to recognize the very highest-performing students, so there are fewer grade 9s than there were As.”
Around two-thirds of the 9 grades awarded in the core subjects of English, English literature, and mathematics went to girls. Just 2,000 pupils got 9s in all three core subjects—more than predicted, but significantly fewer than the top grade (A*) equivalent. Although there had been some concern that reforms might disadvantage female students, the results show that girls have in fact extended their lead over boys at A* to C grades (and 9 to 4), particularly in English. In mathematics, however, boys did achieve more top-level grades, widening the gap by more than double last year’s percentage difference. In 2016, math was the only subject in which boys took the lead, while this year they also achieved higher grades in physics, economics, and statistics.
The JCQ reports that A level and AS level exam results in 2017 also largely remained steady during a period of similar reform. Director General of the JCQ, Michael Turner, highlighted the success of “hundreds of thousands of students on their efforts and results and ensuring they get the right support they need to embark on the next stage of their lives.”
Similar to the GCSE, A level and AS level reforms involve new content and less non-examination assessment, among other changes. The JCQ stresses that standards in these qualifications remain unchanged. It notes that there was a drop of 1 percent in the number of A levels awarded since last year, which was not unexpected on the basis of the number of 18-year-old students, and given that “facilitating subjects” (those frequently required for entry to university degree courses, i.e., Biology, Chemistry, English Literature, Geography, History, Maths, Further Maths, Modern and Classical Languages, and Physics) continued to represent over half of entries at A level. Fluctuations in the distribution of grades awarded were small.
While newspaper headlines and stories were quick to point out that male students surpassed their female peers in terms of top grades at A level for the first time in 17 years, the JCQ takes a more considered approach in identifying interesting gender patterns in the results of the reformed subjects. At the top grade (A*), females marginally outperform their male counterparts (7.3 percent compared to 7.0 percent). Meanwhile, at A*–A, males and females are on a par (24.3 percent). However, there is a suggestion that males are closing the gap, based on the pattern of results in the reformed exams (Art and Design, Biology, Business, Chemistry, Computer Science, Economics, English Language, English Literature, English Literature and Language, History, Physics, Psychology, Sociology, Welsh First Language), with male scores falling by fewer percentage points than comparable female results. Michael Turner commented, “There may be several factors influencing the performance of males and females in reformed A levels in England, and of course it is too early to draw any firm conclusions. However, it will be interesting to see if the pattern continues as we progress through the reform timetable.” l

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