Now the dust has begun to settle after yesterday's chaos, I thought I'd take a few minutes to outline five key things we found out about the new History GCSEs. OK, it's really four and a question, but hey ho!
1) Pupils this year did pretty much the same as last year overall
This is not really a surprise as Ofqual demanded a statistical tie between 2017 and 2018. Therefore almost the same proportion of kids got a G/1 or greater as last year, and the same for C/4 and A/7.
Of course, this does not mean everyone’s results will have been stable. It is common with new specifications for some schools to do much better than normal and some to do much worse. This is usually because some schools manage to match what examiners were looking for more closely. It is almost impossible to second guess this precisely in the first year of a specification as examiners refine their expectations during first marking and grading discussions.
Read the examiners’ reports closely and get some papers back if you were not happy with your overall results.
2) Your choice of board made almost no difference to overall grades (on average)
Discounting the statement at the end of the last point: because the boards all had to adhere to this basic rule when awarding grades, the differences between boards are also non-existent. If you look at the detail you will see that some boards did deviate from the 2017 figures, however this is because they have to take prior attainment into account. So, the reason that OCR A seem to have awarded more 4+ and 7+ grades would suggest that more high attaining pupils took these exams. By contrast OCR B probably awarded slightly fewer 4+ and 7+ grades due to a weaker cohort. This might imply that OCR centres chose their specification based on the ability range of their pupils (though this is pure speculation). AQA and Edexcel pretty much fit the Ofqual model, suggesting they had a broadly representative sample of pupils.
3) The papers this year were harder than in previous years
Next, we have a look at the grade boundaries across all the boards. Given that the proportion of students getting grade 1+, 4+ and 7+ were fixed, the moving grade boundaries tell us a little about how difficult/accessible the papers were:
- If the grade boundaries go up it suggests pupils found the paper easier
- If they go down, it suggests the pupils found the paper harder
In the chart below, you can see that in 2017 pupils in history generally needed to get 74% to be awarded a grade A, however in 2018, they needed only 60% of the marks. As a rough measure, this suggests the A grade in history was 19% harder/less accessible for pupils this year. The big issues are much more evident at Grade C/4 and G/1 where pupils needed just 37% and 6% of the marks on average vs. 55% and 18% in 2017.
- These were meant to be strengthened GCSEs to raise standards. There were around 18 questions between 2 or 3 papers for most of the GCSE specification. On average, each of these questions was worth around 9 marks. A pupil who gained a G grade probably only got around 10 marks in total over these papers. Or in other words, they answered only 1 complete question correctly in 3 papers and over 4 hours of exams. By contrast a pupil in 2017 was getting around 36 marks across their papers, and therefore answering at least 3 whole questions correctly.
- We cannot be sure why pupils scored so badly at the lower end, by the fact that marks are so low at grade 1 boundary (and even grade 4) suggests that many pupils failed to finish papers, or possibly failed to complete whole papers. For anyone who has worked with pupils who lack confidence, non-finishing and being put off by difficult questions can be a killer in terms of examination success. At the very least, pupils in 2017 were given a chance to demonstrate their knowledge more completely than in 2018. The very low marks at the bottom end also make the issue of fair grading a bit of a crap shoot. It would have been possible for a child to get lucky on a single question (something they had just looked at) and secure a grade 1 without answering a single other question on the paper. Meanwhile a child with weak knowledge and limited confidence might have attempted 3 or 4 questions with a little success and then given up and received the same grade.
Your top end pupils are probably fine with all the changes, but your weaker students are going to struggle. Strategies to finish papers, or answer more questions will be key, alongside boosting core knowledge and building confidence in the face of hard questions.
4) Some boards were harder/less accessible than others
Following on from the above, a closer analysis of the grade boundaries reveals some interesting things. Again, we take the premise that the grades were fixed and therefore lower grade boundaries essentially mean a harder set of papers.
If we look at the chart below we can see that the percentage of marks required for a Grade 7+, 4+ and 1+ were broadly similar across Edexcel and OCR. However, the AQA grade boundaries for both grades 4+ and 7+ are significantly lower. At grade 7 the difference is 15% and at grade 4 it is around 10%. This would suggest that pupils found the AQA papers noticeably harder/less accessible than pupils taking the other boards.
If you are doing AQA and you have a very mixed cohort, or a large number of 3-4 borderline students, this may well not be the right specification for you. Have a think about some of the key points on spec switching.
5) Should I change exam boards?
OK, so this is more of a question than something we have found out, however it is one a lot of people are asking. It isn’t possible to provide a definitive answer to this, however I hope some of the explanations above help you contextualise your results a bit. If you are still unsure what to do, consider the advice below.
Below is a list of possible reasons for your exam results being poorer than in previous years.
- Your students might not have approached the exam in the way the examiners intended for any number of reasons.
- Read the examiner reports closely and request a range of papers. If you can’t afford your own papers, ask the board to send you some scripts from across the range. Keep asking the boards for advice. It never hurts to have at least one department member marking either!
- Your students might not have answered enough questions, or failed to finish papers, as seems to have been common this year.
- Work on timing and confidence building. Some more realistic grade boundaries will probably help here, but bear in mind these will probably go up next year as people get used to the exam.
- You did not cover the course completely.
- Rethink your planning in light of the depth of understanding required by the exam. One big issue I have seen a lot is departments taking legacy units and spending too long on things which are now less important in the new specs e.g. ancient medicine. You might also like to consider how conceptual understanding might be supported by a re-worked Key Stage 3, both in terms of knowledge and second order concepts. Hodder are about to publish a new KS3 book to this end. You might also like to read Rich Kennett and my recent article in Teaching History 171 via https://www.history.org.uk/publications/categories/300/resource/9398/teaching-history-171-knowledge
- Any number of departmental, school, other issues
- This happens all the time. If you have been in turmoil, a change of exam board is not always wise. A bit of stability often goes a long, long way in a troubled department or school! Seek out help from schools doing the same spec nearby. Get on any exam board, or other training ASAP. If you are OCR B, don’t forget regional advisors.
If you are still considering changing boards, bear the following points in mind: