The Cambridge View on structural and technical issues

The Cambridge View on structural and technical issues

The Department for Education for England has identified a number of areas where it wishes to make changes to the current 14-16 qualifications (GCSE). Tiering and Grading are amongst the most challenging. 


GCSEs are graded on an eight point scale A* - G. The Department for Education has stated that “At the level of what is widely considered to be a pass (currently indicated by a grade C) there must be an increase in demand to reflect that of high-performing jurisdictions.” Clearly, to keep the same grading scale risks simplistic equivalencies being drawn between the new C and the old C. Similarly, using any straightforward numeric scale also has the danger that the third or fourth number down is taken as the C (or pass) equivalent. 

The Education Department has stated “We believe there is a strong case for reformed GCSEs to have a new grading scale, to reflect the step change in our expectations … Any changes should apply across all subjects, and should differentiate performance more clearly, particularly at the top end.” 

Cambridge Assessment is in favour of moving away from reporting results in the reformed GCSEs on a grade scale and, instead, reporting results on a numerical scale with a much larger number of points. 

The advantages of using a numerical scale are: It would avoid the situation where two people can have scores some distance apart yet receive the same grade while another two people can have scores very close together but receive different grades because they are either side of a grade boundary. It would preserve as much information as possible about the rank order obtained from the examination. It would mean that unavoidable measurement error had a similar impact along the scale, rather than its effect being concentrated around grade boundaries. A longer numerical scale should be more ‘future proof’ in that there would be no need to add extra grades (A*, A** etc.) if achievement rises and/or more discrimination is needed at the top end. 

The Case for Scale Scores – reporting outcomes in reformed GCSEs lays out the case for such a change, notes its advantages and examines some of the questions that arise. 


Most GCSE examinations have two tiers, the original purpose being to offer exams ‘tuned’ to the ability of candidates with apparent advantages that candidates do not sit in front of a paper which includes questions which are far too easy for them, or for other candidates, questions which are well in excess of their ability. Upper tiers have a grade range of A* - D(E) while lower tiers have a range C – G with much overlap. There is some evidence to suggest that some students are entered for the wrong tier of examinations. In addition, the Education Department believes that some students are not entered for upper tiers as securing a C at the lower tier is considered an easier task – and C grades in some subjects are key school accountability measures. 

The Education Department has stated: “The current system of tiered papers, whereby pupils are forced to choose between higher and lower tier papers, places a cap on ambition. Reformed GCSEs should avoid that, while enabling high quality assessment at all levels. We acknowledge that the appropriate approach to assessment will vary between subjects and a range of solutions may come forward… There should be no disincentive for schools to give an open choice of papers to their pupils.” 

The paper from Cambridge Assessment, Tiering in GCSE –– which structure holds most promise?, draws on domestic and international experience of ‘routing’ students and tiering exam papers. It concludes that there is much to be said for taking a different approach to Maths and English, as opposed to other subjects, and suggests some radical approaches to the challenge.

As part of our on-going programme to develop reformed GCSEs we will continue to consult as widely as possible with teachers, learned societies and Higher Education. If you would like to share your views with us please email 

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