Grade Inflation

Roger Titcombe's picture
In addressing the astonishing grade inflation that has been a feature of the English education system since 1988 it is informative to consider the proportion of the normal cognitive ability distribution (percentile) that historically each grade was meant to reflect. Henry should be very familiar with these data as the school of which he is Chair of Governors is part of the Hackney CATs based banded admission system.

The GCSE, introduced in 1988, is the direct descendant of GCE. GCE was for grammar school pupils selected by ability. Before comprehensive reorganisation, the 11+ exam (a crude cognitive ability test) usually sought to select around the top 20% of the cognitive ability range in each Local Authority area. This could vary depending on the proportion of grammar school places available compared to the total pupil population. In general, grammar school pupils were expected to ‘pass’ at GCE at age 16, with a pass defined as grades A-C. Two lower grades D & E were also provided. The C grade at GCE was therefore aimed at the top 20% of the pupil population (80th percentile). It should be noted that not all grammar school pupils obtained pass grades at GCE so the proportion of the national population gaining a C or better through the grammar school system was less than 20%.

The new comprehensive schools that began to be created in the late 1960s furthered the development of the Certificate of Secondary Education (CSE), first introduced in 1965, which ran in parallel with GCE until the two exams were combined into the ‘Common Exam at 16’ in 1988, which was called the GCSE. I have been a Chief Examiner in both the CSE and GCSE systems. The CSE grade system was overtly percentile based with Grades 1 – 5 defined by the following ‘fixed percentile points’.

Grade 1 Equivalent to GCE grade C (therefore approximating to the 80th percentile)
Grade 4 The grade which a pupil of average ability (50th percentile) could be expected to achieve on completing a competently taught course of study.
Grade 5 The lower limit of Grade 5, and therefore the CSE system, was intended to be at the 40th percentile. This meant that the CSE was aimed only at the top 60 percent of the comprehensive school population. Pupils below this level were deemed to be ‘non-exam’.

Grades 2 and 3 were awarded on the basis of dividing the total population achieving between the Grade 1 threshold and the top mark for Grade 4 into two equal size groups. This principle was then applied so as to arrange the other grade boundaries to result in each grade 2-5 having the same numbers of pupils. In percentile terms the CSE exam grades were therefore designed to approximately reflect the percentiles shown in the table.

The GCSE combined the GCE and CSE grading system as follows.

GCSE GCE CSE Percentile
A             A              90?
B             B              85?
C             C    1       80
D             D    2       70
E              E    3       60
F                     4       50
G                    5       40

As soon as the first GCSE results came out in 1988 teachers realised that the value of the C grade had in fact been devalued. The consensus at that time amongst teachers was that the new C grade at GCSE was about equivalent to a D at GCE (Grade 2 at CSE). No-one worried too much about this at the time. With hindsight this was a modest change in the light of the truly epic scale of grade inflation that was to follow. More unfortunately a wide section of the teaching profession, including the teaching unions, became increasingly trapped into having to deny this, even though it has long been obvious to everybody involved in the education system. The most frequent defence of what was happening was the resort to the ‘how hard the pupils had worked’ argument, articulated by media coverage of pupils opening their results envelopes every August.

The passing of the 1988 Education Act brought about the next major change in the assumptions of grading. Schools soon had to compete in league tables based on the proportion of pupils in the school achieving 5+A*-C passes at GCSE. Following the election of New Labour in 1997 any school that failed to achieve 25 percent 5+A*-C (the first floor target) was deemed to be failing by definition, regardless of the average cognitive ability of its intake. This sought to deny any direct link between pupil cognitive ability and exam performance and placed responsibility for obtaining C+ GCSE results squarely with the school. Failure to obtain at least a C grade at GCSE was at first blamed on ‘low expectations’ on the part of teachers with schools and teachers accused of fulfilling the role of the educational jailors of pupils locking them into the class defined prisons they were born into. This vilification of comprehensive schools serving areas of social and economic deprivation and their teachers has persisted ever since with all attempts at a defence being condemned as ‘making excuses for failure’. So-called evidence for this alleged failure was regularly churned out in the form of the persistently poor results of pupils from poor communities compared to their more affluent peers (the ‘attainment gap’). That there might be significant differences in average cognitive ability between school admission cohorts was never considered, investigated or controlled for.

Later, as a high proportion of schools still failed to meet the floor target despite expectations and exhortations raised to ‘Masterchef’ levels, and a huge increase in education spending by the Labour government, the blame increasingly became shifted towards ‘irresponsible parents’ who were condemned for locking their children into their own class-defined underachievement as a result of antisocial and dysfunctional parenting. By now, high %5+A-C = good school, low %5+A-C = bad school, became the established assumption that leaked from the education pages of the quality press to the aspirational property pages and TV shows that fuelled two decades of ultimately disastrous house price inflation turning this completely irrational and false assumption about school quality into an accepted fact of everyday discourse. Thus to the disaster of lack of access to housing has been added the catastrophe of failing schools.

With no link recognised between pupil cognitive ability and exam performance and with privatised Exam Boards competing for ‘business’ from potentially sub-floor target schools threatened with closure and with all schools now competing in the league table jungle for bright pupils, grade inflation soon became so rampant that a new A* grade became necessary to divide up the increasing proportion of pupils being graded at A.

The C grade then became the grade an average pupil should expect to attain. Before long the ‘average’ became dropped and the C grade became the ‘expected’ grade for all secondary pupils (alongside SATs Level 4 for primary pupils). This reduced the C grade threshold at first to the average, 50th percentile (former CSE Grade 4 – below GCE E equivalence), rather than the 80th percentile required for ‘matriculation’ in the GCE system. Later, when English and maths were made compulsory within the 5+A*-Cs needed for league tables, the C grade was further devalued to become the ‘expected’ grade for acceptable literacy and numeracy, the assumption being that all pupils should be able to achieve this if attending any school with acceptable standards. This in effect reduced the C grade to well below the 40th percentile (CSE grade 5).

In the days of GCE, when C gades were required for university ‘matriculation’ and less than 20 percent of the school population was admitted to the much smaller number of universities that now exist, it is apparent that Level 3 of Bloom (Application) must have been a minimum requirement. Studies of GSE exam papers from the 1960s and 70s clearly show that a high proportion of questions were at or above the tier three ‘Application’ level in Bloom.

The introduction of GNVQs (equivalent to up to 4xC grade GCSEs) in the late 1990s brought an accelerated race to the Bloom basement in classroom practice. These ‘vocational’ qualifications were awarded with no requirement for the demonstration of any cognitive ability at all. Not even Level 1 Bloom (Remembering) was required as there were no formal examinations and validation merely required the teacher to tick a box indicating that the pupil had been exposed to a particular ‘experience’ or context. This therefore placed the C grade ‘vocational equivalent’ at ‘Sub-Bloom’, where it remained until the 2012 reforms introduced by Michael Gove to take effect from 2014, GNVQ having been already replaced with many hundreds of such GCSE ‘equivalent’ qualifications from ‘Horse Care’ to ‘Hospitality’, taking in ‘Nail Care’ on the way.

Current GCSE exams make varying levels of cognitive demand, but it has become increasingly possible to obtain a C grade without even attempting any questions above Bloom Level 2 (Understanding) and this is especially the case for English and maths, the essential subjects for driving league tables. Indeed it would appear that Level 1 (Remembering) now predominates in these subjects opening the door to the resurfacing of the long discredited drill and practise teaching methods of behaviourism.

Exams that require only Bloom Level 1 are most cost effectively taught by Skinner type behaviourist methods involving practising (drilling), cramming, revision, rewards and punishments, with ever harsher disciplinary and sanctions based school regimes required to contain the resulting disaffection.

This is the mire from which the Conservative-led coalition government is struggling to dig out the English education system with its failure plotted in terms of the decline in the international PISA test performances especially in maths, and the ‘Anti-Flynn Effect’ detected by Flynn, Shayer and Ginsburg.

To explore what this now means in terms of the minimum cognitive ability required to achieve a C grade in maths and English, we can take the example of Mossbourne Academy, which achieved 82% 5+A*-C including English and maths in 2010. This means that 82% of the pupils must have obtained a GCSE grade C in maths, making the 18th percentile the C grade threshold. This translates into a cognitive ability score of 87. When the GCSE was created such a pupil would have been deemed to have a cognitive ability below the minimum for Grade G.

This means that government education policies since the 1988 Education Act, have either been disastrous or miraculous in their effect. We have either suffered education-destroying grade inflation, or the success of league tables and market driven competition between schools in transforming the quality of teaching and so enabling the cognitive ability level at which a C grade in maths becomes accessible to drop from the 80th to well below the 40th percentile.

Bloom’s taxonomy, used to assess the cognitive demand of current exams, offers one possible tool for determining whether this change in the status of the C grade reflects the disastrous outcome of extreme grade inflation and the widespread abandonment of teaching for understanding and the higher Bloom levels in our schools, or a truly miraculous triumph of the Thatcher – Blair marketisation and pseudo-privatisation of the education system. The work of Flynn, Adey, Shayer, Ginsburg, and so many others in our universities point clearly to the former. Exam grade data, combined and compared with pupil cognitive ability data from CATs complete the picture and provide a mechanism that explains and describes how and why the ‘Anti-Flynn Effect’ is being realized in our schools.

An educational catastrophe is in fact taking place, caused by the marketisation of the school system, unique in the developed world, and notably absent from the highest performing school systems in the world.

So Henry, on this I beg to differ. Grade inflation is real and a symptom of a real decline in standards. What has happened to GCSE has been mirrored at KS2 with SATs results also inflated by the same marketisation causes, so pinning GCSE results to KS2 has no validity either.

Unfortunately Gove recognises the symptoms but not the cause. His medicine will accelerate the decline.
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