GCSE results: edging towards perfection

It seems that historic GCSE attainment data is hard to access. Understandably so. The government, and its predecessors for the last 29 years, hardly have a good story to tell.

Neither the ONS, nor DfE nor data.gov.uk seems able to furnish me with historic attainment figures. Specifically, I’d like the percentage of pupils attaining five or more A*–C grades by year. And I’d like to know the grade distribution by subject (and overall) by year.

I’ve managed to cobble together a dataset containing 2001/2 data and 2006/7 data showing the proportion of A*–C grades by primary subject by geography and gender. It seems that subsequent years’ data isn’t available. For the sake of brevity, let’s wrongly refer to an A*–C grade as a pass.

Over that five-year period, the pass rate in core subjects has gone up by 8.9 percentage points, from 31.6% to 40.5%. Assuming linearity, everyone should be passing these subjects by 2039.

Over the same period, Maths passes have risen by 4.7 percentage points, from 49.2% to 53.9%. And English by 4.2 points, from 56.8 to 61.0%.

So as a nation, it’s clear that we’re becoming more intelligent. Or are we?

Of course we’re not. The whole thing is a farce. The overall pass rate (in the ridiculous “turn up and you pass” sense of the word) has risen for the 23rd consecutive year, now sitting at a heady 98.7%. The qualification has become meaningless. A grades were the first to become worthless, A* grades being introduced in 1994, soon becoming the new currency of choice. And now in certain circles, anything less than ten results containing the letter A is seen as failure. How on earth employers or colleges evaluate the relative merit of candidates I have no idea.

As I’ve said before, there needs to be some normalisation. We are not getting more intelligent as a nation. The percentage of A* grades awarded each year should not change. Ever. There should be a forced curve for each subject. It would give predictability to those organisations interested in those pupils. But perhaps more importantly, it would rid the world of trite, vacuous news stories every August, accompanied by attractive leaping girls.

This won’t happen, of course. Instead, the youth of tomorrow will edge towards perfection, everyone becoming equal and indistinguishable.


2 Responses to “GCSE results: edging towards perfection”

  1. Steph Gray on August 25th, 2011 23:35

    To be fair, it depends if you view grades as a ranking or distribution which – as you say – should probably remain constant from year to year; or whether you see a grade as representing a certain level of competence in a subject, in which case, better teaching could indeed mean the country as a whole improves (and, you’d hope, continuously).

    The problem is confidence in the system, which isn’t very strong amongst employers (looking for a certain level of skill, presumably) or, I suspect, in FE/HE institutions (rationing a certain number of places, who probably would prefer a normalised distribution).

    Maybe we need a combined system – a grade and a ranking – e.g. ‘I got an A (24th percentile) in English’.

  2. Adrian Short on August 25th, 2011 23:36

    The key question to ask is: what are school exams for?

    Are we trying to measure attainment against a fixed standard? Should that standard remain constant year on year?

    Are we trying to differentiate students from each other, categorising them according to relative ability?

    The former seems to be fairer to the students. The latter is more useful to universities and employers.

    Whatever other factors there may be behind the apparent grade inflation, I know that it’s far easier to get access to information with every year that passes. I’d be astonished if Wikipedia alone — for all its faults — hadn’t produced a measurable increase in students’ performances.

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