GCSE, AS and A level qualifications in the UK are awarded using the ‘comparable outcomes’ approach to setting and maintaining standards. This approach means that if the national cohort for a subject is similar (in terms of past performance) to last year, then results should also be similar at a national level in that subject. 

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Download our short PDF Comparable outcomes approach: A Guide to find out:

  • how can improvements in teaching and/or learning be recognised under the comparable outcomes approach;
  • how can awarding bodies recognise genuine improvements in student or teacher performance over time;
  • will comparable outcomes mean that results for linear, reformed GCSE qualifications at my centre in 2018 will be in line with modular A*-G in previous years?

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You can also find more information about the comparable outcomes approach, on the Ofqual Blog.

The basic principle of this approach is that if the group of students (the cohort) taking a qualification in one year is of similar ability to the cohort in the previous year then the overall results (outcomes) at national level, should be comparable.

Statistics play an important role in the comparable outcomes approach. Awarding bodies work with Ofqual to create a reference matrix for each subject, on which to base predictions of GCSE and AS or A Level performance. This prediction matrix applies to the cohort taking the assessments in the current year, and is based on those candidates’ prior attainment data. For GCSE this data is taken from the tests taken at Key Stage 2 while for AS and A Level candidates’ GCSE results are used.

In addition to statistics, senior examiners play a crucial role in providing their expert judgments about the quality of work and this insight also helps ensure that the grade boundaries are set in the right place.

Our subject experts are trained thoroughly in the process of writing question papers and assessments that are consistent in difficulty year on year. It is also important to ensure that assessments are valid and that they are not predictable for learners. Because of this, question papers can be slightly more or less difficult than in previous years because of the content being tested and the questions that are asked. In order to ensure fairness to all candidates and comparability of standards over time, grade boundaries may shift to ensure that variation in difficulty is taken into account.

This is particularly important during transition to new or changed qualifications or grading systems, such as the new GCSE 9-1 qualifications.

We know that being able to track student progress effectively is very important to our centres, learners and their parents. We provide as many practice assessments as we possibly can to support this, but they are only one part of the picture. Without a sense of where grade boundaries might be placed, teachers tell us that it can be difficult to make decisions such as which tier to enter candidates for - and that is particularly pertinent  where new content, assessment expectations and, for GCSE, a new grading scale might all make it more difficult to feel confident in how candidates will perform.

We get many requests for support with predicting or modelling where boundaries might fall. As the team who set and mark the papers and carry out the award, there is an expectation that we know some of the answers about 9-1 grading in advance.

However, we don't know in advance how this specific cohort will look, in terms of their age, prior attainment and so on. That's one key piece of the jigsaw when setting standards.

We try to ensure the papers are of the same standard year-on-year but sometimes candidates can find certain papers slightly easier or more difficult than others. If a paper is particularly difficult, adjusting grade boundaries ensures that comparable outcomes are maintained year on year and that no candidates are disadvantaged simply because of when they took the assessments. We won't know how candidates will perform on new papers until they actually take them.

As an awarding body, we have a duty not to provide any information that could be misleading or set expectations in an unhelpful place. Our role is to focus on setting papers that allow all learners to reach their potential, to mark them accurately, and to deliver the right result on time. We will provide as much support for planning, teaching, revising and formative assessment as we possibly can, along with data and support for interventions.