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School exam grades in England can't be trusted

In England, every year, more than a million high school students take GCSE (age 16), AS (age 17) and A level (age 18) exams. The grades those students are awarded are important. Good grades open doors. Poor grades slam them shut. So it's vital that those grades are reliable, and can be trusted.

The truth, however, is that about 1 grade in every 4 is wrong. Without any right of appeal.

That means that of the approximately 6 million grades awarded each summer, about 1.5 million are wrong. The number of wrong grades is greater than the number of students, so, on average, every student in England is awarded at least one wrong grade. But no one knows which grades are wrong in which subjects. Nor can anyone ever find out - these wrong grades cannot be discovered, or corrected, by the appeals process (which is distinctly odd, but true, as explained here).

So those 1.5 million wrong grades last for ever. As does the damage they do.

Unsurprisingly, this is denied by the authorities - the exam regulator, Ofqual; the schools regulator, Ofsted; the government's Department for Education; and the exam boards AQA, Pearson/Edexcel and OCR, who set, administer and mark the exams.

For some years, I have been throwing a bright light into this most murky corner. I've written a book - Missing the Mark: Why so many school exam grades are wrong, and how to get results we can trust - published by Canbury Press in August 2022; I've written many blogs and similar pieces for national newspapers, and on platforms such as the Higher Education Policy Institute, TES (formerly, the Times Educational Supplement), Schools Week and FE News; I've presented at many conferences; there are these videos and podcasts too.

Here are the blogs:

GCSE grades are unreliable (Daily Telegraph, 21 August 2017)






Dear Ofqual… (HEPI, 15 August 2019)



Why ‘exams as usual’ are a bad idea (HEPI, 15 September 2020)



Just how reliable are exam grades? (Rethinking Assessment,15 October 2020)


Why are exam grades unreliable? (Half-baked Education, 27 October 2020)


Exam grades MUST be reliable and trustworthy (Sixth Form Colleges Association Blog 6, 1 November 2020)



The Great Grading Scandal Engineering Challenge (Engineering Professors Council, 20 November 2020)




Exam grades can never be ‘accurate’. But they can be ‘reliable’.  (Sixth Form Colleges Association Blog 6, 7 December 2020)


On assessment, teachers are wrong by design (Schools Week, 17 December 2020)





How to deliver reliable school exam grades (Inside OR, April 2021, page 11)



Can exam grades be accurate? (Chartered College of Teaching, 14 May 2021)





To whom is Ofqual accountable? (HEPI, 16 September 2021)


Exams 2022 - a call to action (Sixth Form Colleges Association Blog 6, 20 September 2021)


The Perfect Crime: Why Your Grades Could Be Wrong (by Lucy Heywood and Charlotte Gleed, The Oxford Blue, 3 June 2022)






The Perfect Crime (Canbury Press, 9 November 2022)



Unreliable grades do great damage. This must be fixed. (Rethinking Assessment, 29 January 2023)





Written evidence to the House of Lords Education for 11-16 Year Olds Committee (submitted 6 April 2023; made public, 28 April 2023)





Dear Ofqual… (FE News, 20 July 2023)



Is it time for a re-mark of the exam appeals system? (School Management Plus, 16 August 2023)




Wrong grades with no right of appeal (Educate, NEU, September/October 2023, page 50)




The Damaging Flaw In England’s Exam Grading System (Teaching Times, School Leadership Today, 21 November 2023)



And this letter to the Times, published on 26 August 2023:

My inference that "on average across all subjects, about 1 grade in 4 is wrong" is much disputed, not least by Ofqual's then Chief Regulator, Dr Jo Saxton, in her August 2022 video (at about 7:43), and by Mary Curnock Cook, Chair of Pearson Education, in this HEPI blog of 14 August 2023.

The key facts concerning the unreliability of grades, however, have been cited by several influential lobby groups such as Rethinking Assessment, The Times Education Commission (page 36) and New Era Assessment (page 19), and discussed by, for example, Melvyn Roffe and Rob Cuthbert.




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