Is GCSE Grade Inflation a Myth?

Henry Stewart's picture
The conventional wisdom is that GCSE grades are not worth what they used to be, that they have suffered from grade inflation and that business has lost faith in them. But is there any basis to this? Janet Downs has looked at some of the evidence in our FAQ section (under School Performance), and there does seem to be more evidence of it at A level. The basis of Gove's changes is the assumption of grade inflation at GCSE but is it reality or myth?

This morning (18th September, p 6) the Guardian published intriguing data on the change in the % achieving grade C or above over the last 20 years:

  • All subjects: From 42% in 1988 to 69% in 2012

  • English: From 57% in 1993 to 64% in 2012

  • Maths: From 46% in 1993 to 58% in 2012

So there was a relatively small increase in English, a moderate increase in Maths and a large increase in other subjects. But how does this compare to progress of these children at age 11? DfE data shows that:

  • English: % achieving Level 4 or better rose from 49% in 1995 to 80% in 2007

  • Maths: % achieving Level 4 or better rose from 45% in 1995 to 77% in 2007

I have used 2007 figures as this was the cohort that took GCSEs in 2012. The 1993 GCSE students would have been in Year 6 in 1988 but age 11 SATs were only introduced in 1995 so these are the earliest figures available. Students achieving a Level 4 at age 11 are expected to achieve a level C in GCSE (last year 74% did so in English and 69% in Maths).

We discovered this week, as Fiona Millar described, that Ofqual is now setting GCSE pass rates according to the SATs results achieved by the same cohort. If this had been the policy over the last twenty years then we could expect a much bigger rise in English results. Indeed if age 11 literacy has been transformed, with a jump of 31% in the number achieving level 4, why have those achieving GCSE only risen by 7%?

The same question can be asked of Maths. If the number achieving level 4 rose by 32%, why did GCSE grade Cs only rise by 12%. This would seem to indicate there is more likely to have been grade deflation than grade inflation. The increase for both subjects is absolutely in line with what can be expected from the improved performance at primary school and, we would hope, improvements in secondary schools.

At first glance the increase of 27% in the numbers achieving grade C across all subjects would seem to indicate grade inflation in the other GCSEs. However even this 27% increase is less than the increase in level 4s in either  English or Maths. And, oddly (given the huge increase), nobody seems to talk about grade inflation for the SATs that students take at age 11.

So is the basis of the changes announced this week by the government actually based on myth rather than reality?
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FJ Murphy's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 21:22

Having taught Chemistry & Physics for 26 years, there is no doubt that it is now far easier to get high grades. Compared to O-levels, the syllabuses contain much which is waffly rubbish and an embarrassment. Thank God for the new reforms!

Will's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 22:10

F J - fascinating insight into your experience in Science [and I suspect what you say may be right]. However, did you actually read the article above. The analysis of KS2 grade inflation is fascinating and puts KS4 grade inflation into perspective somewhat.

RPWillan's picture
Tue, 18/09/2012 - 22:43

Surely the severe lack of chemists and physicists suggested to you that proper old school content wasn't exactly grabbing young peoples imagination. While willing to concede there is a lot more waffly stuff, there is method in the madness. Chem and physics may be easier in comparison to Chem and physics from the past, but they are still far from the easiest options today. If these subjects aren't packaged and sold well then their future may suffer. Not that I claim the current and now obsolete system to be the ideal!

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 06:42

While the GCSE pass rates have shot up, Britain has fallen further behind other countries. Have they got even better even faster? Should we trust KS2 & KS3 any more than GCSE?

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 06:46

The uptake at A-level did not increase with GCSEs. The pupils whom I have taught treat the waffle with the contempt it deserves and if you can't make proper Physics and Chemistry interesting, for their own sake, you are pretty useless teacher. There must be a purge of those in LEAs, exam boards, the DFE or whatever it's called, and teacher training institutions. BVasically, I'm fed up with having to teach crap and utterly despise the idiots who have wrecked our education system. Luckily, I'm now in a school that teaches IGCSE, which Labour would not permit, under the public school/Oxbridge educated philistine Ed Balls.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 07:06

F J Murphy - you have fallen for the "plummeting down the league tables" myth. There was a fall in the relative position of UK pupils in the PISA tests between 2006-2009 but the slight drop in scores was statistically insignificant. The much hyped drop in PISA league table position between 2000 and 2009 is based on figures the OECD (which administers PISA) has found to be flawed. OECD has warned that the 2000 figures should not be used for comparison (see faqs above).

The decline in PISA position between 2006 and 2009 is the result of more countries taking part. In any case, UK students were at the OECD average for reading and maths and ABOVE AVERAGE in Science. In the last Trends in Maths and Science Survey (2007), English pupils topped the European league. It's difficult to understand how UK and English pupils could achieve these results if they are being taught "waffly rubbish".

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 07:18

F J Murphy - as you are a scientist I presume you look first to evidence rather than anecdotes before coming to a conclusion. So, where is the evidence that iGCSE is more demanding than GCSE? It is widely perceived at such, but as a scientist you will know that perception does not equal reality (the world looks flat, for example, and the sun goes round the earth).

There has been increased update in iGCSEs in the independent sector who maintain it is more demanding. And results have been impressive. But then the independent schools that take them tend to be highly-selective. There have even been claims that iGCSE is chosen because it is, in fact, easier. There is no coursework, for example. And a TES analysis in 2010 found that iGCSE Maths allowed calculator use for all questions while GCSE banned the use of calculators for some questions.

I'm always concerned when scientists demand a "purge".

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 15:56

My evidence is my 26 years of teaching and my claim about IGCSE is that it is better science, as the syllabuses are not padded out with waffle about recycling, why roses are used to make perfume instead of onions, why we cook chicken etc (all from current syllabuses in Chemistry). I recently analysed a Chemistry GCSE and found that, for foundation level, the chemical content was less than 50%: most of the paper required interpretation of data and other such questions needing no prior knowledge or understanding of the subject, and the course work (33%) was almost entirely devoid of any science. QED.
Moving to A-levels, in '82 not even 1 in 8 candidates scored a single grade A, and A-levels were taken by a narrow 20% of the more-or-less brightest. In 2010 (the latest data I have), 1 in 8 scored at least THREE grade A, from a wider cohort of about 40% or so. Durham University's analysis of data collected over decades supports the idea that there has been grade inflation. In maths, for example, the standard that would have achieved C in 1982 would now get A.
Alas, despite the vast financial input, standards are slipping relative to competitors. Singapore spends far less on education but does much better.
As for the purge, it won't be of the left wing sort (Maoist, Stalinist etc.) but should simply be dismissal or sidelining of those whose aims are other than purely educational.

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 16:00

I'd like to add that in the first year of GCSEs, there was a very substantial increase in the pass rate and the percentage of high grades. Did 'teaching and learning' suddenly make great progress in 12 months or were the new exams just easier?

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 16:22

I strongly recommend Furedi's book, as reviewed in the Guardian.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 20:13

Frustratingly, Furedi tends to give credence to anecdote and sensational news stories that support his account, but not to data – exam results for example – that might nuance the picture. That makes it hard to know if the problem he describes is a tendency on the margins of education or a crisis intrinsic to it.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 16:30

F J Murphy - re GCSE Chemistry (no reply button). Would the "waffle" about recycling be "to consider and evaluate the social, economic and environmental impacts of exploiting metal ores, of using metals and of recycling metals" or "to evaluate the social, economic and environmental impacts of the uses, disposal and recycling of polymers" (AQA 2012)?

I could find no reference to roses or onions, cooking or chickens in the AQA syllabus. They could, of course, have been included in other exam board's syllabi.

According to the evidence of one witness to the Education Select Committee, the Durham research had "methodological issues” However, the Radio 4 More or Less programme would support your contention that there had been grade inflation at A level which particularly affected Maths (see faqs above re grade inflation for further info and links re the Select Committee and More or Less).

It does not follow that because Singapore spends less on education that their standards are higher (do ALL pupils take O levels in Singapore, or are they only taken by those who have a chance of passing?)

In any case, as stated above, in TIMSS 2007 English students were at the top of the European league in Maths and Science. And PISA 2009 found UK students were above average in Science.

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 19/09/2012 - 17:30

Answer to waffle question, yes. If you look at the questions themselves, they are pitifully easy and the answers are statements of the b****ing obvious. The perfume and chicken questions are from an OCR paper and are not untypical. Pupils are expected to learn about the oil industry before having any knowledge or understanding of chemical bonding or atomic structure. These are merely examples of the sort of tripe in the exams, much of which does nothing to educate pupils about Chemistry or prepare them for further study.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 06:48

F J Murphy - thanks for the info. I'm not a chemist but I take your point about pupils only being asked about the application rather than the theory that underpins it. Is this at GCSE or A level? A survey asking universities for their opinion of student preparedness for under-graduate study (discussed in link below). It revealed:

"Over 50% [of lecturers] thought that first-year undergraduates were unprepared for degree level study in their subject although this varied among departments: science lecturers found it was less of a problem."

According to the survey science department didn't find the same problem with unpreparedness as other departments. It would appear, then, that the examples you cite (the "tripe") do not prevent further study to the same extent as was found in other departments.

Nevertheless, I take your point that easier questions could lead to more passes. However, are the "easier" questions directed at the lower grades ie the foundation level? How much weighting do these "easier" questions attract? Are higher tier candidates (the ones destined for university) expected to answer more theoretical questions?

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 17:02

The higher tier papers are more demanding, but still lack the level of knowledge and understanding of the O-level.
A-levels were made easier as soon as the first GCSE cohort reached the 6th form. In a syllabus that I taught, about 20% was simply removed and not replaced. There is certainly less detail than there once was, though the last review did make slight improvements.

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 17:34

OECD Report: Standards flat despite increase in spending.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 19:10

F J Murphy - thank you for providing a link to yet another of the Daily Telegraph's "damning indictment" of Labour's term in office articles. The first paragraph says:

"Pupil performance has remained “flat” since the mid-90s despite a sharp increase in investment in the education system, it was revealed"

The DT claims it is using the OECD document as a source but the OECD didn't start doing PISA tests until 2000. So the DT has claimed the report shows "stagnation" from before the tests were even administered.

However, it was a step in the right direction for the DT to use PISA league table data from 2006 instead of the discredited 2000 ones which it has quoted constantly in the last couple of years. Perhaps it will go a step further and explain that the slight drop in league table position was caused by more countries taking part and some countries upping their game, some of these "countries" weren't countries at all but "jurisdictions" (ie territories as opposed to whole countries - China for example had four jurisdictions in the tables), and although the change in UK scores was statistically insignificant UK pupils were still at the OECD average in reading and maths and ABOVE AVERAGE in Science.

And we mustn't forget the Trends in Maths and Science Survey (Gove and the DT usually do) - this showed that English pupils were at the top of the European league in Maths and Science at ages 10 and 14.

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 19:23

The exchange of statistics could continue indefinitely. I am not limited to the DT, as you may have noticed my link to a Guardian article. I would be interested to know your experience of education. Are you a teacher, a governor, an LEA official? I do not rely on statistics for my observations of the poor quality of GCSEs in science, but my intimate knowledge gained in 25 years of teaching in a wide range of schools in diverse parts of England. I have yet to meet a science teacher who does not think that GCSEs are easier than O-levels and have become easier, but I suppose that is mere anecdote.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 19:27

Statistics and properly gathered analysis are probably more objective and reliable than advancing unsubstantiated personal experience?

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 19:39

So the fact that I can look at 25 years of exams and use my deep experience of my subject to spot the clear decrease in difficulty is of no value, whereas the mountains of contradictory statistics hurled back and forth can be relied upon? We all know about lies, damned lies........ What, pray, is your experience in this field?

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 19:53

No one is saying your experience is of no value. Just that it is entirely personal and therefore impossible to be relied upon. My experience is irrelevant - I'm interested in evidence and analytical research carried out by correct methodology. This is why the reputation and work of Professor Robin Alexander matters so much and why he is taken so seriously

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 20:10

So I cannot rely on looking at different papers, seeing that material from pre-GCSE times is no longer examined, has been replaced by trivia which is in some cases not even to do with the subject, that candidates find questions broken down into little pieces to facilitate their success and that so many of my colleagues feel the same. I have had a look at Prof A'er's profile. What, I wonder, does he know of GCSEs? Your experience is 'irrelevant'. So someone whose experience is 'irrelevant' knows more than someone who has been immersed in science education for 25 years. If I had time, or the inclination, I could no doubt find no end of articles and 'experts' in their ivory towers, writing papers, analysing figures and so on, to support my experience. Next time I come across a pathetically easy GCSE question or a child with an A* who seems to know little of the subject, I'll remind myself that Prof A thinks everything is absolutely wonderful and ignore the evidence that presents itself to me.

Allan Beavis's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 20:19

Well you might want to rely on it, but when you produce no evidence, just personal prejudice, then you can't expect other people to be persuaded. "Lies, damned lies" works both ways, whether told erroneously or on purpose.

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 20:30

So experience is now 'personal prejudice'. A prejudice is an opinion formed with no regard for the facts, so I hardly think my opinion is a 'personal prejudice'. Perhaps I don't like ad hominem comments from someone who is yet to disclose much EXPERIENCE in science education, beyond reading articles that support his 'personal prejudice'.

sarah's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 21:03

You repeat your 25 years of science teaching as if this lends your opinion or experience a superiority over evidence gathered from wider and more diverse study. Yours is coloured entirely by your own experience and from what you claim, with no supported evidence, is what teachers up and down the country to be true. Do you have evidence of what percentage of teachers believe GCSEs have been dumbed down? Insisting that your experience is the one that counts does not add to the debate.

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 21:15

Provide me with the evidence that science GCSEs are not easier than O-levels.
What, may I ask is your experience or knowledge of the matter under discussion?

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 21:19

Professor Alexander's area seems to be Primary Education, so he probably knows little of science at GCSE and A-level.
Dare I say that the Royal Society of Chemistry knows rather more about this than Prof. Alexander or various contributors to this discussion who have yet to disclose their own experience, or lack thereof, in the topic?

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 21:25
Here we have the Institute of Physics. Although the press release is from 2007, it refers to the GCSE course that ran up till this summer. I shall try to find out what they currently think.

FJ Murphy's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 21:29

Mariuspodolski's picture
Thu, 20/09/2012 - 21:47

F J Murphy

This thread is about grade inflation. Its not a forum for you to rant about your past as a science teacher. Go away. You're not a great example of a noble profession either. Thank God you never taught my children. They would have learnt only how much you relish failure.

FJM's picture
Fri, 03/01/2014 - 18:45

Apart from abusing my professional qualities, what do you have to offer?

Janet Downs's picture
Fri, 21/09/2012 - 09:36

While I take F J Murphy's point that an easier exam could lead to more passes and this in turn would lead to grade inflation, the evidence about whether there has indeed been grade inflation is inconclusive (see faqs above). F J Murphy provides evidence of the opinion of learned societies (whose views should be respected). However, the Royal Society of Chemistry said this:

"From September 2007 the RSC repeatedly drew national attention to the need for reform, asserting that the future economic competitiveness of the UK was being undermined by slipping standards in education."

But the evidence of "slipping standards" is not proven. The RSC must be aware of the Trends in Maths and Science Survey 2007 which placed English students at the top of the European league in Maths and Science at age 10 and 14. It must also be aware that in PISA 2009 UK students scored above the OECD average in Science. On this evidence, the competitiveness of UK students stands up well.

F J Murphy also links to the Institute of Physics which actually says:

"The Institute of Physics says it is too early to pass judgement on the new [GCSE] syllabus. The institute aims to encourage more pupils to study the subject at A-level."

This aim of increasing the number of students studying physics has been realised thanks to what is called the "Cox effect" - the excellent TV programmes by Professor Brian Cox.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 08/10/2012 - 08:49

Ofqual would appear to agree with F J Murphy:

When we looked at the GCSE science qualifications in 2009, we found that they were not at the right standard for GCSEs. They did not adequately test the subject content and were not demanding enough.

Ricky-Tarr's picture
Mon, 08/10/2012 - 08:59

The detail of what Ofqual found wrong with papers in 2007/8 matches FJ Murphy's criticisms.

The report: Findings from the monitoring of the new GCSE science specifications: 2007 to 2008 (March 2009) can be found on the website.

FJ Murphy's picture
Wed, 26/09/2012 - 20:43

Maths exams too easy.
From the Guardian, not Telegraph. Backed by research by experts in Mathematics.

Patrick Hadley's picture
Sun, 07/10/2012 - 18:32

This argument seems to be polarised between on the one hand those who believe that there has been no grade inflation over the past thirty years, and on the other hand those think that all of the increase in pass rates has been caused by inflation, with there being no improvement at all in standards, indeed if anything they suspect that there has been a decline in standards.

My own experience as someone who began teaching Maths in the early seventies and has taught A-level Maths and Biology recently to members of my family, leads me to two firm conclusions:

1) There has been significant grade inflation in the last thirty years.
2) There has also been a significant increase in the standards attained by the average student at 16 and 18.

If I were asked to explain the way in which the pass rate has increased, I would attribute about half to inflation, and half to the improvement in our schools. From the above article it seems that Henry Stewart and Fiona Millar suspect that not only is all the increase in pass rates due to better teaching, but that it is possible that the increase underestimates the improvements that have taken place. I suspect that Michael Gove, and perhaps FJ Murphy, believe the opposite, that not only has all the increase in pass rate been caused by inflation, but that this inflation has masked a real decline in educational attainment.

I wonder how other people with experience in schools would apportion the rise in pass rates between inflation and improvement?

agov's picture
Thu, 11/10/2012 - 09:41

Well, you could start by reading that Guardian article from four years ago in which we learn from Margaret Jones, honorary secretary of the Association of Teachers of Mathematics, that "the report was too backward-looking. Pass levels had always been variable and "therefore are not a good comparative measure"."

Still, anything to help a good rant.

Gary H's picture
Fri, 03/01/2014 - 17:53

Patrick wrote:

1) There has been significant grade inflation in the last thirty years.
2)There has also been a significant increase in the standards attained by the average student at 16 and 18.

I think you'll find that the increase in standards is due to the year-on-year dumbed down exam papers leading to grade inflation!

FJ Murphy's picture
Mon, 08/10/2012 - 09:04

When O-levels were introduced in 1962, about 18% achieved at least 5 at grade A to C. This rose gradually to 23% in 1986, their last year.Since then, the pass rate has taken off and is now at over 60%. Is the sudden lift-off when GCSEs were introduced a coincidence, with teaching and learning improving enormously at the same time, or is it grade inflation?

Gary H's picture
Fri, 03/01/2014 - 18:08

The difference in KS2 results and GCSE results is that (in maths) pupils make very little progress in years 7 and 8 due to a curriculum that barely extends them past KS2 work. They begin a GCSE course that they should be starting in year 7 because it has been so dumbed down. This is why of course that many schools have been starting pupils early on GCSE courses anyway to maximise their chances of top grades.

Unless they raise the expected standard to level 5 at KS2 we will see an even bigger disconnect between predicted grades when students take the new strengthened GCSEs

I must admit I share F J Murphy's frustration with some of the clearly deluded people posting here.

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