Any improvements in GCSE and A-level performance since 2010 are likely to have been caused by pupils and teachers becoming more familiar with the tests, rather than by an increase in students’ ability levels or a “dumbing down” of exam papers, according to a new report from the exams regulator Ofqual.
The study found that pupils’ performance – as measured by marks rather than grades – improved significantly in the first three years after the introduction of new A-levels in 2010-11 and new GCSEs in 2011-12, but that this improvement slowed after that time.
The improvements probably result from teachers gaining more experience of teaching the new specifications and pupils having more past papers to learn from, the report suggests.
Limits of familiarity
It says benefits brought about by growing familiarity with the tests usually last for about three years. After this, the “limits of familiarity” are reached and the effect no longer brings about significant improvements in performance.
Ofqual’s report says the fact that pupils’ marks rose in the wake of exam reforms suggested that familiarity, rather than other factors, was the cause: “One would expect that improvements due to [test familiarity] can be made more quickly than [those] due to [genuine improvements in ability], meaning that improvements due to test familiarity might explain a greater portion of the more rapid changes occuring in the first few years.”
It adds: “The fact that most [grade] boundaries exhibited relatively rapid increases which seemed to lessen after the third assessment year…is consistent with the proposition that post-reform improvements in performance are test-specific and related to student/teacher familiarity (rather than reflecting more general improvements in ability). This is because one would expect improvements to subside once the limits of test familiarity and preparedness are gradually reached.”
Ofqual said its research, which covers the period since 2010, would “allay concerns of a systematic ‘dumbing down’ of assessments”.
This was because it was “unlikely” that improvements in pupils’ performance were “due to assessments becoming easier”, it said, adding: “Changes in test familiarity is a more plausible explanation.”
Ofqual’s report uses increases in grade boundaries, rather than in final grades, as an indicator of rising pupil performance. An Ofqual spokeswoman said the use of “comparable outcomes” – a system that has ended grade inflation by linking overall GCSE and A-level results to pupils’ prior attainment – would prevent grades from dropping and then rising as a result of new exams, which are being introduced over a three-year period from 2017.
However, she added that the years of rising GCSE grades between 1988, when the qualification was first introduced, and 2012, were not caused by increasing familiarity with the tests. This was because, during this period, there was a “year-on-year steady increase” in grades, rather than sharp rises in the wake of new exam specifications.