The argument about GCSE English grades continues to boil away. Legal actions are commencing. The attention has uncovered clues that exam reforms over the past few years have, by accident, been more substantial than ministers or officials had intended. The marking system used for the old O-level might have been reintroduced by stealth – and accident.
Here’s why: English exams used to deploy a process called “norm referencing” (or “marking on a curve”). That means that, in effect, you hand out grades depending on their position. In 1963, it was decided that roughly the top 10 per cent of A-level entrants would get an A, the next 15 per cent a B and so on.
Since the 1980s, exams have used “criterion referencing”. That is to say, they say “if you know the date of the Battle of Hastings, that is worth an C. If you know about William the Conqueror’s claim on the throne, you get a B. If you know about Hardrada, get an A…” Under this model, you can have changing numbers of pupils getting each grade.
This graph, from Alan Smithers at Buckingham, shows what happened when England switched from one to the other in the late 1980s.