Words in the News

making the grade

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Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

Thursday was an anxious day for half a million 15 and 16-year-olds across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (not to mention their teachers and parents) as they awaited the results of their GCSE exams taken in the early summer. The anxiety was compounded by the fact that this was the first outing in England for a new grading system which rates results from 1 to 9 rather than from A* to G. Students also had to cope with a new style of assessment in some subjects that focuses everything on the final exam rather than a mix of exams and coursework, as previously.

But there are further complications. For a start, the new grades only apply to English language, English literature and maths; other subjects will not be graded 1 to 9 until 2019. So students got results for some subjects with a numerical grade and others with a letter grade. Even more confusingly, A*-G comprises 8 grades, with A* being the highest and a C being regarded as an acceptable pass. Those of you with GCSE maths will have noticed that the new system does not map on to the old one exactly (9 grades as opposed to 8) and will wonder how the grades compare. The answer is that under the new system a 4 is a pass, a 5 is a ‘strong pass’ and a 7 is equivalent to an A.

But wait, I hear you cry, if a 7 is an A, what is the difference between an 8 and a 9? Are they both equivalent to an A*? The official answer is that a 9 requires a higher mark than an old A* and that this allows for greater differentiation between high-performing candidates. The immediate result was that far fewer candidates were awarded 9s than were awarded A* in the past, with the number of students gaining the maximum 9 in all three core subjects only one third of last year’s. There was also a slight drop in the number of candidates achieving the pass grades of 4 or C.

Confused yet? You are not the only one. While most parents and students, and of course teachers, have got their heads round the new system, the wider public are perplexed. One reason for this is that for most people a 1 is a more logical top mark than a 9, while the fact that there are effectively two pass marks (4 and 5) will make it more difficult for employers to see at a glance if an applicant has reached an acceptable standard or not. All in all, many people are inclined to give the government that introduced these complicated reforms and the exam regulator that implemented them a 4 at best.

Grade comes via French from the Latin ‘gradus’ meaning ‘step’, while the phrase make the grade has been around for about a century. Will children still be going through this annual ritual a hundred years from now?

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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