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Mathematics: GCSE

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 6 December 2007

To ask the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families what percentage score was required for a GCSE pass in mathematics at Grade A for each examination board in each year from 1997 to 2007. (163306)

This information is not held centrally. The process awarding bodies go through to ensure that standards are consistent means that there will be variations in terms of raw marks required between different awarding bodies’ qualifications and from year-to-year.

It is for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) as the qualifications regulator to oversee the awarding process to ensure that standards are comparable both between different qualifications and over time. The Chief Executive of QCA, Dr. Ken Boston, has written to the hon. Member on this issue and a copy of his reply and the report mentioned have been placed in the Library.

Letter from Ken Boston, dated 20 November 2007:

GCSE and A level grades

Thank you for your letter of 30 October following the answer that Jim Knight MP provided in response to your Parliamentary Question.

Although Jim Knight’s response indicated that the QCA is responsible for maintaining standards across qualifications and over time, it also stated that the level of information on grade boundaries that you are asking for is not held centrally. I am afraid that this means that QCA does not hold the information either. It is the awarding bodies that offer GCSE and A level qualifications who are responsible for setting grade boundary marks in each subject for every examination series.

Although I am unable to provide the data you request, I think it would be helpful to explain how the number of marks required to achieve a grade in any particular examination series is determined and which conclusions can be drawn from variations in the number of raw marks required to achieve a particular grade boundary each year.

For each discrete unit within a qualification (for example, there are currently six units in most A level qualifications) the mark required to achieve a particular grade is determined by an awarding body’s awarding committee according to a process that is set out in a code of practice issued by QCA. An awarding committee comprises the most senior examiners for a qualification. They are required to use professional judgment, supported by technical and statistical data, to ensure that standards are carried forward from year to year. In other words, the committee must ensure that the same level of performance will achieve the same grade across different years. However, as different question papers are used in each examination series it is possible that the demand of the question paper might not be identical year-on-year. To take into account unforeseen variances in the demand of question papers between years, the awarding committee may adjust the number of marks required to achieve a particular grade in any given year in order to ensure standards are maintained.

The awarding bodies that offer GCSE and A levels are AQA, Edexcel and OCR in England, WJEC in Wales and CCEA in Northern Ireland: Between them, each of these awarding bodies offers up to 50 different subjects at GCSE and 40 different subjects at A level. Some awarding bodies offer more than one qualification in each subject per qualification type. In addition there are now opportunities to sit GCSE examinations in March, November and June and A level examinations in January and June.

Therefore, answering your question would require the collection of an extremely large amount of data in the form of a list of each grade A and grade C boundary mark for each of the hundreds of GCSE and A level specifications in each of the examination series in each of the 10 years since 1997. The only inference that could realistically be taken from such data would be that mark boundaries have varied and, indeed must vary, in order to maintain standards. Furthermore, raw mark grade boundary data could also be misleading as they would not necessarily indicate where there have been changes in the total number of marks available in a particular examination component.

On previous occasions, QCA has investigated the issue of changes in grade boundaries to look at whether a change in grade boundary marks indicated a change in standards. We looked at a number of grade boundaries in English, English Literature and Mathematics over a number of years. In addition, QCA collected data from a wide range of GCSE and A level examinations in a single year. We concluded that changes in grade boundaries did not indicate a change in standards and that it would not be necessary for us to expand our investigation or collect data from a wider sample. I attach a copy of the report on this work.

However, all of this is in relation to raw mark grade boundaries only. A levels and modular GCSEs allow candidates to sit component parts of the same qualification in different examination series and because papers in different years will be of slightly differing demand a method of scaling is required to ensure that the same level of achievement would receive the same grade across examination series. This scale is the Uniform Mark Scale (UMS) and it enables units for which different amounts of marks are available to be aggregated across or within an examination series to give an overall grade. The percentage of UMS marks required to achieve a given grade does not vary. At GCSE the following percentage of the maximum uniform marks available for a component is required to achieve a particular grade: A* - 90% of the available uniform marks; A - 80%; B - 70%; C - 60%; D - 50%; E - 40%; F - 30%; G - 20%. At A level to following percentage of maximum uniform marks are required to achieve a particular grade: A - 80%; B - 70; C - 60%; D - 50%; E - 40%.

Although QCA is unable to answer your question in the terms in which you asked it, I hope that I have been able to provide you with information that you find to be of use.