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Are GCSEs too easy?

(22 Posts)
TellNoOneOK Thu 07-Nov-13 01:06:46

According to Gove they are, so he has decided to make things a bit more tricky and make them do all their exams in one go. Well this is good news for one zillionaire that I know. The need to attend horse shows will now only be interrupted the once by examination swotting.

We do suspect that something isn't right. More and more students getting A and even A*. Are our children really getting that much more clever and better educated? 11% achieved grade A or above in 1990 and a staggering 22.4% achieved this in 2012.

How are they really doing now? An A grade now means a UMS % score of about 80 or above. A fifth getting 80% plus sounds good. UMS was originally brought in to make minor adjustments year by year due to slight differences in the exam or bad snow. This is now being abused. When we look at what our children have to achieve in raw score terms, things start to look very different. For their first OCR Gateway biology exam for example, in 2013 they had to achieve only 60% to get an A*, 49% to get an A, and a mere 28% to get a C.

Even back in 2010 things were more realistic. For an equivalent OCR gateway biology exam raw % thresholds were A* 77% A 65% C 40%.
I remember that year of students - a hard working bunch. 22.6% got an A or above in their GCSE exams overall.

The board will justify these differences in biology by saying that the exams were changed. A cosmetic re-arrangement would be an accurate description.

Actual performance in the sciences is not good because the subject is getting harder. There is much more to know and understand. To study Chemistry, Biology and Physics as separate subjects, students take 6 fairly demanding exams. Doing all six in one go will make it very hard to do at all well in real terms.

Currently teachers are not covering the subject fully, because they know that they have an easy target to meet. 28% in biology to get a C which can be achieved with heavy last minute revision of the top line. Students go on to do A level and have a terrible time because they are just not prepared with a 50% A grade. This situation will get worse by condensing the examinations into one sitting.

It is my belief that the separate sciences should have three exams in
year 10 and three in year 11, as they do now. The content of the exams does not need to change. What does need to change is that there should be more realistic grade thresholds and more extensive teaching of the more able.


slickrick Thu 07-Nov-13 06:28:06

GCSEs are much harder compared to when I did them, theres more content, more subjects and more pressure to perform.

I think results are better now due to the internet (instant information) there are more practice books GCSE guides, tutoring and also the need to do better because there are less jobs than 20 years ago.

HSMMaCM Thu 07-Nov-13 07:07:49

I am taking a gcse after taking O levels in the good old days and I have to say, it's pretty hard. The level of work my teenage DD is doing at school seems higher than the work I used to do.

Shente Thu 07-Nov-13 07:14:50

I can only speak for the subject I teach but I personally think languages are much easier with controlled assessments than they were with written papers and "unseen" orals. There used to be a coursework option though which I don't think was much harder than ca. Language A levels are also massively easier than they once were, but frankly we wouldn't get any students if they weren't as languages still seem to be viewed as disproportionately demanding.

Moominmammacat Thu 07-Nov-13 08:45:12

Languages easier, music easier and probably English too, in that they don't cover the breadth of material we did in the 70s. No idea about the rest. Think history might be harder in that there is more analysis, at least at A level.

onebananatwobanana Thu 07-Nov-13 09:15:14

The gap between gcse science and A level is big, so having a final exam approach gives more teaching time to be able to cover the syllabus in depth. I did O level separate sciences and A level sciences and we all coped with final exams. It was just what you did. Given that we are the employers now, I think that there is generally scepticism about gcses because of the points made about the % thresholds by the OP and therefore an assumption that they are easier (see above comments which support this, in some subjects anyway). Therefore I think something had to be done, and as a result Gove has looked backwards to what our generation did to introduce final exams. Couple that with the other point made about ease of information (internet, revision guides etc) and I think DC have a real chance to shine.

LittleSiouxieSue Thu 07-Nov-13 10:00:44

I went to a grammar school in the 1970s. At that time about 25% of the school population went to grammar school in our area. About 50% of our 6th form obtained the qualifications to go to university which was perfectly possible with two Cs and a D. It was possible to do medicine with A, B and E grades as my friend did. It was a rarity for anyone to get 3 As! I can only remember one boy going to Oxford in the whole time I was there. A levels might be easier but so many more people go to to university now and parents and universities demand As so it is inevitable that the exams have changed. My husband has a D in maths A level but went on to study Civil and Structural Engineering at a RG university. No chance now. Also, a lot of our teaching was poor. Many teachers had top degrees themselves but could not teach. Many were time-servers with little enthusiasm in the classroom. School was the most boring time of my life. I would be devastated if my children had been taught in this way.
Also it is perfectly possible to study languages at Oxbridge successfully with A levels in languages. If they are so much easier, how can normal A level students access these courses successfully? They can, and do, so the A levels cannot be totally downgraded. Or maybe Oxbridge have downgraded their courses too!
There are so many more universities and so many more people value education and want their children to go. C and D grades at A level are seen as failure by many now. We could make the exams more difficult and reduce the number of young people qualified to go on the courses and the universities could lower their offers. Or we could accept that most young people have the necessary qualifications to access the course they choose with the system as it is. Some may need a bit of remedial help at university, eg how to write an essay, but the majority do not. Therefore, if A levels are perceived to be easier, does it matter?.
Alternatively, make them more difficult and then you go back to the elite few going to to university. The rest will have to find apprenticeships or work with day release, as I did. Most of us know this is not available, hence university is seen as the preferred route to give young people a chance. Hence A levels are a bit easier. At least people get a chance now.

TeenAndTween Thu 07-Nov-13 10:58:57

I did O levels. DD1 is in y10 so just started GCSEs.

In some exams the content is different. Not necessarily easier, but just different.
History involves much more analysis, consideration of sources etc. For me it was regurgitating facts.
Languages: I'm not very much in favour of the controlled assessments, but the vocabularly / topics they have to learn is harder, and the spoken bit is much more important than it was for me. I think DD1 will emerge less gramatically correct, but with more general usefulness in her langauges.
Maths: Similar topics. But from what I have seen of questions so far, maybe not as stretching for top students.
Science: There is a lot of content, but a lot of core seems to be 'general knowledge science'. I think it is quite good for non scientists, but you would have to do triple for deep scientific content.
RE. Seems very formulaic in how to answer, but a much better syllabus.

Summary. I think GCSEs are OK. But I think the high % of A/A* at the moment means that the regrading 1-9 is probably a good idea, as there isn't enough separation at the top.

TellNoOneOK Thu 07-Nov-13 11:27:06

I agree, the content is harder, partly because there is much more stuff to know. The problem is that Gove has now allowed an A grade to be 50% plus. 50% is not really enough to really say you are good at science. Because teachers only have to achieve this level I know that the more difficult parts of the subject are being left out at some schools. This is making it harder for pupils to learn.

People are expecting that the new Gove exams will be harder. I believe that this is unlikely since the political need for A grades is too great.

The O level standard is not that gold. In my day you could pick and chose the questions that you did and just not bother to learn some of it. I got a grade 3 in Latin only actually knowing about 50 Latin words. I used to do my other homework in my Latin teacher's lesson. She was very nice and incentivised me by betting that I could not possibly pass.

Current O levels have a large element of multiple choice. Many foreign students take them as they often have a poorer command of English. Of course this may not be so important in the future if English is no longer the main scientific language used.

Now we have hard single science exams with low raw score grade boundaries with plenty of time to learn and improve and no recognition for high achievers.

Soon we will probably have easier exams with higher grade boundaries.
Lets just hope that in the rush to get the exams out the way they don't turn out to be too easy, simply because science isn't easy.

hellsbells99 Thu 07-Nov-13 11:34:35

My DD2 is sitting separate science gcses and each one is 3 exams in total plus an ISA (write-up of practical experiment) so that's 9 exams for science in June not 6 - this is AQA.
There does seem to be too much of interpreting graphs etc in the science exams rather than knowledge.
Maths was 2 exams - I would say reasonably difficult but not enough to bridge the gap with AS level. DD did maths in year 10 so she is spending year 11 preparing for AS level.
English Language was several controlled assessments which are a pain and takes time away from studying plus 2 exams she has sat this week - was supposed to be in June but as Gove has messed around with the syllabus they have sat it early so all assessments already done will count.
The huge quantity of work is what is difficult at GCSE not necessarily the level of work when compared to O levels.
I only really worked hard for the last 3 months of my 2 year courses - my DD1 who has just finished her gcses this June had to work constantly for 2 years.

slickrick Thu 07-Nov-13 13:59:16

Hellsbells, my DD is doing the same as your DD. The science is totally different to when I did GCSEs and much harder. The questions on the last GCSE paper really test their knowledge.
RE the maths my DD is doing additional maths as an extra, its much harder than GCSE maths and is supposed to bridge the gap between GCSE and A level.

hellsbells99 Thu 07-Nov-13 15:31:15

Slickrick (like the name!) - I think a lot of schools now do extra maths in year 11 for those who look like doing A level. DD is doing a level 3 algebra qualification which looks as though it has good coverage.

pointyfangs Thu 07-Nov-13 20:15:24

I think there are a lot of things to untangle here and they all contribute to the current untenable situation:

1) Grade boundaries. A 50% score for an A is patently ridiculous. In fact the whole A-G thing is ridiculous, they should just give % scores the way they do in FE.

2) Multiple choice is not a good assessment tool in many subjects. In science there should be a mix of problem solving/analysis and then multiple choice to test factual knowledge. In the MFL there should be written work, text comprehension (which can be multiple choice) and literature, which should be written but could be written in English rather than in whatever the MFL was.

3) I agree that there should be end of year exams, not end of course exams - a set at the end of Yr10 and then at the end of Yr11. However, there should also be controlled assessment - under strict exam conditions with thorough moderation. That system is used in many European countries which do better than the UK, and it works well. A school worth its salt will make these ca hard so that the central exam seems like a piece of cake. Of course, to make this work we need to lose the obsession with league tables.

4) We need to get rid of competing exam boards. There should be one exam board, not just for one subject but for all. It should be run by the government, not for profit, and be staffed by well paid subject specialists and examiners.

5) I actually like exams where you have a set of mandatory questions that everyone must do plus however many of the optional ones. It means you can really have students show their abilities and makes differentiating between talented people easier.

Gove's GCSE reforms are just a simplistic rehash meant to make him look tough on education and tough on the causes of education so that he can become party leader.

lljkk Thu 07-Nov-13 20:22:42

Human beings are very good at learning to do the same thing better and better.
So it makes perfect sense to me that results should rise year on year IF the difficulty of the exam and content is very comparable year on year.
Because human beings are so good at learning to do an old job better. They will have figured out new ways to teach better & teach more to the test.

I would be more confused if results didn't rise year on year.
that would mean that the exam itself was getting harder over time. Or that the results were standardised so that only a fixed % to get top marks each year (this was the pre-GCSE system I understand).

Dominodonkey Sat 09-Nov-13 22:08:53

It is variable between subjects. I only got 2 Bs at GCSE for Science and have learnt no Science since but would get very high marks on current Science papers as some of the more complex stuff has been removed from the syllabus and it is modular.

What Gove and those who know nothing about exams or education don't understand is that teachers work a hundred times harder and in a far more focused way than they used to. When I did GCSE I had no: modelled answers; marking criteria given; clear targets to improve upon; essay questions broken down; booster classes etc. Now all decent schools provide all this as a matter of course. It is inevitable that students are doing better.

It doesn't mean that students are cleverer though, or that they key elements of the subject are taught better.

Takver Sat 09-Nov-13 22:30:40

I suspect that a lot of the reason for improved grades is that children work harder. Even in the 80s with - for then - high unemployment you could expect to leave school at 16 with a few middling CSEs and get a job.

These days, to get the same entry level job you would need a great deal more in the way of exams, and hence children are pushed by their parents into working more consistently throughout secondary.

IMO the options of both final exams and continuous assessment should be offered, allowing children to choose what suits them best. BUT with the caveat that your final certificate shows what route you have taken. Some jobs are much more suited to the steady hard-worker, others to the pull-it-out-of-the-hat at the last minute type, and employers would soon learn what was best for them.

I speak as someone who got fabulous O levels on last minute panic, and would definitely have not got the same results if I'd had to perform continuously! But I'm very good at doing the same in the workplace - for example in a past job turning out a winning tender with minimal notice and not enough resources. (And was much less good at then actually doing the work without an immediately pressing deadline. . . )

BoneyBackJefferson Sat 09-Nov-13 22:41:08

Interested too now where you get your percentages from?

meditrina Sat 09-Nov-13 22:48:03

It's the perennial debate about bell-curve marking v absolute scores marking.

In my day, only the top x% (I think 10%) received an A - whether it reqipuired over 80/100 or, that year only 60/100 to be in that cohort. E year on year differences between cohorts was never help to be bell-curve marking would be unfair.

Nowadays well over 25% get top grades.

It's not whether the syllabus is intrinsically harder (for pupils can only work to the syllabus that is laid out in from too them) - rather how we score performance against that syllabus.

IndiansOnTheRailroad Sun 10-Nov-13 07:36:30

moomin Music isn't easier! It's much much more difficult! history and Eng Lang also tougher nowadays. RS, Eng Lit about the same. MFL easier. Maths much easier (unless you're dyspraxic, then it's much harder since more weight placed on easy stuff which is difficult for dyspraxics and far less weight placed on higher maths skills that would actually be relevant to A level or degree level).

BalloonSlayer Sun 10-Nov-13 08:41:47

I did O Levels.

My English literature paper had very simple essay questions such as "What was your favourite scene in the book and why?" hmm Although the books themselves were more complex... I am not sure how 2013 GCSE students would get on if they had to study a Thomas Hardy novel instead of Of Mice and Men. Poetry is studied to a level I only encountered when I did a degree and there are some terms I never even heard of when I was doing my degree.

The English language exam had a comprehension and then you had to write a story. One two hour exam. Mind you, to get top grade your spelling and grammar presumably had to be spot on. The recent English Language GCSE coursework was much harder than anything I did for A level.

History was just repeating stuff, taught in the lesson as "this is what happened", as fact. No discussions about bias.

Latin exam was 40% translation, and 60% "literature" - in other words the literature exam was all in English. WTF? Some of the literature was a translation of some literature we had already translated in class so I just learned the whole lot off by heart, recognised which section it was and regurgitated the lot.

My Mum, who did her School Cert (before O Levels) in 1948, got the equivalent of 6 O Levels. She was astounded that my sister did 8 O levels in 1977 and this was seen as a sign that they must be getting easier, as people could do so many more with the same amount of schooling. Ditto when I did 9 O Levels a couple of years later. . . now I think the same about kids who take 12! grin Plus ca change and all that . . .

RiversideMum Sun 10-Nov-13 09:04:01

Remember that the criticism back in the 80s was that our education was too narrow too soon. So if you do more subjects then surely the breadth has to suffer a little? Back then there was quota marking. Some people had to fail. Teachers are getting better at teaching to the test. Teaching to the test is needed because governments like to measure according to the test.

O levels were lots of learning and regurgitating. GCSEs seem to require more thinking and applying. My DD got lots of A*s and As and I did wonder if GCSEs were too easy. Then she got her AS results and she is clearly a lot cleverer than I thought !!! What there is no doubt about is that she worked bl**dy hard. Friends of hers who did not work got mediocre results. So no change there then. That was me too.

homework Sun 10-Nov-13 21:57:40

One reason that kids are doing better academically , than say thirty years ago when I did o levels , are because parents are more educated , in this I mean that my father left school at nine to go work on a farm as his father had died , so only had basic skill with academics . Each generation have extended on from where there parents where , though better education , expectations , both from the education system and there parents .
It also helps that knowledge is instantly available to them , where as we had to find everything in books .
Exam aren't necessary easier , our expectation have changed , if you worked hard before , you could find a job , with references from schools etc . These days you need gcse and a levels for virtually ever job that's on offer. So life hasn't necessary gotten easier for teenagers.
We need to stop rubbishing there achievements , teenage years are hard enough , who want to genuinely go back and do all that again . Not me for one , hard enough the first time round.
Standard have improved , children have it drilled into them from a very young age with constant testing , that exams are important . So work harder from a younger age .
So let's stop rubbishing our kids .

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