Standards in GCSEs in Wales: approaches to defining standards


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Standards in GCSEs in Wales: approaches to defining standards

We have published research from the Oxford University Centre for Educational Assessment (OUCEA) titled ‘Standards in GCSEs in Wales: approaches to defining standards’.

We’ve also published a summary report

We commissioned this research to help us describe and explain how GCSE grading standards work in current Made-for-Wales GCSEs, and as a source of information to help us think about how the approach could be improved to meet the challenges of the new GCSEs being developed to support the Curriculum for Wales. 

Some findings of the research include: 

  • the aim of standard setting is to ensure learners are judged against consistent, defined standards, within and across cohorts, to support the intended use of grades 
  • the GCSE standards approach in normal years in Wales is categorised as ‘attainment-referencing’, as defined in the research literature on standards 
  • under attainment referencing, learners receive grades that are intended to reflect their holistic attainment in the qualification at a standard which is comparable with the attainment required for that outcome in the previous years’ qualifications 
  • attainment referencing (unlike other standards approaches such as norm and criterion referencing) is a mixed methods approach 
  • this means that both statistics and human expert judgement are used to set grading standards on GCSEs 
  • GCSEs have more than one purpose and the standards approach has to take this into account 
  • grades are used: to provide information about a learner’s attainment at the point of taking the assessments, to decide who can and can’t get access to certain opportunities in further study and the labour market, as part of school evaluation and accountability processes 
  • the design of GCSEs presents a number of significant challenges that any approach to standards must address – including changing entry patterns associated with optional qualifications and multiple entry opportunities, papers that vary subtly in demand over time and a mixture of internal and external assessment approaches 
  • attainment referencing is a flexible method that allows for the weight placed on examiner judgement or statistics in the standards setting process to vary, depending on which evidence is likely to be stronger in addressing those challenges as they arise. 
  • although standard setting happens at the end of an assessment process, standards approaches are in fact embedded throughout a cycle of qualification design and delivery. 
  • this is why a significant change in standards approach - for example to norm referencing or criterion referencing would have substantial implications effecting not just grading processes, but also the design of qualifications, their assessments and associated processes, as well as the meaning of grades, their interpretation and use. 
  • for these reasons, major paradigm shifts in standards approaches have inherent risks and are rare internationally 
  • some of the design decisions for the GCSEs designed for Curriculum for Wales – for example, more modular/unitised designs – will present challenges for setting standards 
  • there may be opportunities to strengthen the attainment referencing approach by considering social moderation, grade descriptors or other descriptions or exemplars of the relationship between performance and attainment 

We agree with the findings of the research, which identifies key factors that make a flexible, mixed methods approach to GCSE grading standards like attainment referencing necessary. These are: 

  • the multiple purposes of GCSEs and the uses of the grades, which assume that grades have a comparable meaning across learners and over time 
  • the challenges to achieving comparability presented by the GCSE model – not just papers that vary subtly in demand from series to series, but the optional and flexible nature of entry (which can lead to changes in the population taking a subject in a series) and the varied nature of the subjects, which are complex and often require a mixture of assessment approaches. 

This statement sets out our approach to grading for the new Made-for-Wales GCSEs.