Gove suggests limit on A* grades
13 Oct 2011
The Schools Secretary, Michael Gove, has floated the idea of introducing a limit to the proportion of A-Level candidates who can receive an A* grade.
Speaking at a London conference run by the qualifications watchdog, Ofqual, Mr Gove suggested there might be a case for returning to the old system of exam awarding in which only a set proportion of candidates can receive a specific grade.
This system - known as 'norm referencing' - was used for O and A Levels from the 1960s until the late 1980s. Then fewer than 10% of candidates could gain the top A grade at A Level each year as limits were set on the proportion of candidates at each level. Norm referencing was replaced by 'criterion referencing', in which an unlimited number of students could achieve a grade provided they had demonstrated they had reached the standard. (As an example, a driving test is a criterion referenced exam, with no limit on the number who can pass).
Mr Gove said he was not suggesting going back to norm referencing for all exams but added:' I ask if there's a case for the A* to be set for only a fixed percentage of candidates'.
Exam experts at the conference cast doubt on whether it was fair or feasible to have a single exam in which most grades are based on criterion referencing but one grade was set differently. They also suggested it would not be possible to have comparable standards across different subjects. The percentage of A grades is already very different subject by subject, with signioficant variation between, for example, psychology and Latin.
However one academic welcomed the focus on the problem of grade inflation. Professor Rob Coe of Durham Univeristy, said data collected by his university 'suggests that the rises in the grades achieved by candidates of similar ability are continuing, at both A-level and GCSE'.
He added: 'we have seen candidates with the same level of ability awarded A-levels about a tenth of a grade higher every year since 1988. This inflation seems to have continued up to the latest round of results, taken in 2011'.
However he warned that grade inflation is 'not a simple problem to solve. One of the problems is that you need a fixed test against which to measure any change'.
Ranking exam candidates
Mr Gove floated other radical ideas, including the suggestion that all exam candidates could be placed in rank order, according to their raw results. In this way there could, in theory at least, be one candidate who was first in the country in each subject.
He said a school in west London - Burlington Danes - was already motivating its students by placing them in rank order by test results. He admitted it could be a 'completely wrongheaded idea' but said he was 'putting it out there for debate'.
Results could 'dip'
The Secretary of State also said that if there was rigorous oversight of exams 'there might be a year - even a year while I'm still in office - where GCSE and A Level results dip'. He said people might point fingers and say that standards have slipped but he rejected that, saying that 'if our exams system is accurate, precise, demanding and world-class, there will be years when performance will dip, as well as rise'.
This was a clever speech from the Secretary of State who must be aware that he will get media headlines saying the government wants to see candidate ranking and a limit on A* grades - something that will play well with a large body of public opinion - while being able to point out that he was only opening a debate, not delivering a diktat.
The suggestions are certainly radical and did not go down well with exam experts who feel there has already been too much politically inspired change in the exam system. However, it will probably play well with those who believe there has been excessive grade inflation in qualifications.
Following the larger than usual number of exam errors this year - and the decision to allow Ofqual to fine exam boards for making mistakes - Mr Gove talked tough on the need for greater rigour in the exam system. He said he wanted the regulator, Ofqual, to move from a body that provides 'assurance' to one that 'provides challenge...a watchdog with sharper teeth and the ability to fine if necessary'.
However the head of Ofqual, Glenys Stacey, said Ofqual would not wish to rush to impose fines, although it was a useful weapon to have in its armoury.