Ask Uncle Colin: Grade boundaries

Dear Uncle Colin,

I'm sitting my GCSE Maths starting tomorrow. What will the grade boundaries be?

- First Exams Are Redoubtable

Hi, FEAR,

I'm writing this, believe it or not, in early February1. I'm not even sure this summer's GCSE papers have been written yet, but I am going to make a prediction about the grade boundaries (and show my working).

My prediction: the grade boundaries on the higher tier will be similar to last year's:

Grade Points cutoff Percentage cutoff
3 20-30 8-13%
4 30-40 13-17%
5 60-70 25-29%
6 90-100 37-42%
7 120-130 50-54%
8 150-160 62-67%
9 180-190 75-80%

But how can it be right that 25%...

Put a sock in it. Given the structure and difficulty of the exam, these boundaries seem reasonable and fair.

The structure of the exam is such that the second half of each paper is only supposed to be accessible to students who would have got As and A*s in the old system, levels 7-9 in the new system.

Roughly speaking, the 'easiest' 40 marks over the three papers correspond to level 4 material. The next 40 correspond to grade 5, and so on.

With that understood, a student aiming for a grade 4 (whatever that means) would generally need to have mastered 75 to 100% of the level 4 material to get their grade. In fact, a decent heuristic for the grade boundaries so far has been "get about 80% of the material correct, up to and including your grade". There may also be a slight penalty for picking the higher paper.

Put that way, it seems fair enough, doesn't it? Students aiming for grade 4 and 5 need to make the call on whether they can get nearly all of the points at their level on the higher paper, or 70-80% overall on the foundation - including many much simpler questions.

Is the structure sensible?

No, it's hare-brained. Spending half the paper distinguishing between the relatively small number of excellent mathematicians, leaving the vast bulk of competent mathematicians at the mercy of very narrow boundaries does not strike me as a great way to run an exam. But hey, the Government has decreed it to be this way.

Far better - in my opinion - would be to have a three-tier system, at the very least bringing back an intermediate tier for students in the 3-7 range - namely, most of them - to have a fair stab at.

Ideally, I think the higher-level material should be a separate qualification (Further Maths), and the foundation-level material should serve as a qualifier for the intermediate tier - you don't get to sit a level of exam unless you've done adequately at the level below.

Of course, the Government is implacably opposed to multiple tiers (I gather maths had to fight tooth and nail to keep a two-tier system), so it's not going to happen any time soon.

In summary: within the parameters set, the grades for maths GCSEs make perfect sense. The parameters themselves? Not so much.

Hope that unsolicited rant helps!

- Uncle Colin

Colin

Colin is a Weymouth maths tutor, author of several Maths For Dummies books and A-level maths guides. He started Flying Colours Maths in 2008. He lives with an espresso pot and nothing to prove.

  1. Continuity schmontinuity []

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