Originally published on 7 November 2016, this blog is regularly revised to make sure it is up to date.
The reformed GCSEs in England will use a new grading structure, using grades from 9 (the highest) to 1 (the lowest). There isn’t a one-to-one mapping between the new numeric grades, and the current A*–G grades, but the two systems will be aligned at key grades:
This new structure means there are fewer grades for the lower ability ranges: grades 1, 2, and 3, compared to grades G, F, E and D. For the mid to high ability range, the new grading structure has more grades available, so that it will be possible to differentiate better between students: grades 4–9 (six grades), compared to C–A* (four grades).
Broadly the same proportion of students will receive a grade 4 and above on the new grading system as currently achieve a grade C and above. Grade C – which currently counts for inclusion on league tables – straddles all of grade 4 and the lower part of the new grade 5.
DfE policy (updated in March 2017) distinguishes between grade 4 as a ‘standard pass’ and grade 5 as a ‘strong pass’. Both grades will be reported in school performance tables. Students achieving a ‘standard pass’ grade 4 or above in English and maths will not be required to continue studying these subjects post-16.
The reformed GCSEs in mathematics, combined science, biology, chemistry, physics and modern foreign languages will be tiered. For the higher tier, students will be able to get grades 9–4, with an allowed grade 3. This means that students who just miss a grade 4 will be awarded a grade 3. For the foundation tier, students will be able to get grades 5–1, so that students who are entered for the foundation tier can still achieve a good pass. For the double award in combined science, the higher tier grades will be 9-9 to 4-4 (with an allowed grade 4-3), and the foundation tier grades will be 5-5 to 1-1. Since these are linear qualifications, students will have to sit either all foundation tier components or all higher tier components. Exam boards will use the overlap questions between tiers to make sure the overlap grades are comparable across tiers.
There are now more grades available at the top end of the scale, so there will be more differentiation between the most able candidates. As a rule of thumb, fewer students will get the new grade 9 than currently get the old A*. The new approach (called the ‘tailored approach’) for the top grade will give a grade 9 to approximately 20% of all the GCSE entries that receive grade 7 or above across all subjects, rather than in each subject separately, as has been previously stated. The old approach could have been unfair to subjects with a high ability cohort (such as separate sciences), because there would be more students competing for the top grade than in a subject with a typically less able cohort.
If you were to put all GCSE entries that achieve a grade 7 or above into one big pot, then the tailored approach has been designed to make sure that approximately the top 20% of those GCSE entries would get a grade 9. This means there will be different overall percentages of grade 9s across different subjects, because different subjects have cohorts of different abilities.
For example, on average, there is a greater percentage of high ability students taking separate sciences than combined science, so it is fairer that a higher percentage of students get the top grades in separate sciences than in combined science.
A formula has been developed that can be applied to each specification, to make sure that there are the right number of top grades in each specification. This rule will apply to all reformed GCSEs, including GCSE English language, English literature and maths. After the first year of each qualification, we will use statistical predictions to set grade 9, in the same way that we do for grades 7, 4 and 1. The Grade 8 boundary will be set midway (in terms of marks on the paper) between the grade 7 and grade 9 boundary.
If you would like more information, Ofqual has published more information about it on their website.
Exam boards have published sample exam papers, so that teachers can get a feel for how the new assessments will look. However, they haven’t produced grade boundaries. A lot of teachers have been asking where the grade boundaries will be on the new papers, because it would be really useful to know how well students are performing on the new specifications.
There’s a really simple reason why there are no grade boundaries for the new assessments: nobody will know until students have sat the first exams in each subject. This is because of the way that grade boundaries will be set on the new qualifications, which will ensure that approximately the same percentage of students will get a grade 7 and above as currently get a grade A and above, and similarly for grade 4 and grade C, and grade 1 and grade G.
Since student performance tends to drop a little in the early years of a new specification, the grade boundaries will be set on the basis of statistical information about the prior attainment of the cohort, so students are not disadvantaged because they are in the first year of a new exam. This approach to awarding is often called ‘comparable outcomes’.
Ofqual has produced some grade descriptors for the new GCSEs, to be used as a guide for teachers. However, it is worth remembering that the first awards will be driven by statistics, so nobody knows for sure exactly what performance at each grade will look like until the first assessments have been sat!
Both GCSE and GCSE (9–1) qualifications will appear on the same certificate and so there will be a mixture of numbers and letters. GCSE (9–1) will appear at the top, with unreformed qualifications beneath them. For English Language, there will be a separate Spoken Language endorsement. This will be Distinction, Merit, Pass or Not Classified. This separate grade will not contribute towards a student’s 9–1 grade.
Dr Frances Wilson - Principal Researcher
Dr Frances Wilson is the Principal Researcher for OCR’s Research and Technical Standards team, part of the Assessment Standards Team at OCR. Frances and her team carry out valuable research and technical studies to underpin the development and delivery of OCR’s qualifications. OCR is part of Cambridge Assessment which is a department of the University of Cambridge.