News story

Can different GCSE and A level subjects be compared accurately?

Ofqual launches debate on inter-subject comparability and the level of difficulty of different subjects.

New research published today (18 December) examines whether different GCSE and A level subjects are comparable to each other and whether a better alignment could be achieved. The working papers identify the policy options that Ofqual could adopt in relation to the comparability of different subjects.

Ofqual wants the views of those interested in this topic to help inform the debate. A seminar will also be held on Thursday 4 February, following which Ofqual will decide whether or not it needs to introduce a policy position.

Chief Regulator Glenys Stacey explains:

We expect a GCSE from one exam board to be as demanding as one from another exam board in the same subject, and as those from previous years. But doing the same for different subjects is another issue. Many people would initially expect that all GCSEs should be of the same level, and the same for A levels. And in a very broad sense this is true: they are all set at the same general educational level and need similar amounts of teaching and learning time. But when you look closely there are many factors, mostly external, to consider. Is the student’s flair for the subject taken into account and ultimately should you be able to, or even want to, compare say, chemistry and art, or chemists and artists?

The six working papers published by Ofqual are:

  1. Comparability of Different GCSE and A level Subjects in England: An introduction.
  2. Inter-Subject Comparability: A Review of the Technical Literature.
  3. Inter-Subject Comparability of Examination Standards in GCSE and GCE.
  4. Inter-Subject Comparability: An International Review.
  5. A Recent History of Regulatory Perspectives on Inter-Subject Comparability in England.
  6. Exploring Implications of Policy Options Concerning Inter-Subject Comparability.

The final working paper published today outlines the possible policy decisions and outcomes Ofqual could decide upon once the programme has closed. These are:

  1. no action should be taken to achieve inter-subject comparability through the grade awarding process (which would essentially preserve existing patterns of grade distributions across subject areas).
  2. action should be taken to achieve inter-subject comparability through the grade awarding process (which would lead to different patterns of grade distributions across subject areas than currently exists).
  3. no action should be taken to achieve inter-subject comparability through the grade awarding process (which, again, would essentially preserve existing patterns of grade distributions) but grades should be scaled subsequently to achieve inter-subject comparability post hoc (and these scaled grades should be reported in addition to the unscaled ones).
  4. action should be taken to achieve a plausible alternative to inter-subject comparability through the grade awarding process (which would lead to different patterns of grade distributions across subject areas than currently exists).

Ofqual has published an infographic on the topic.

There is also a video interview with Dr Paul Newton and Dennis Opposs who are leading the programme of work.

video interview

Interested parties can also take part in an online survey. This survey closes on 4 March 2016.

Presentations from our conference held on 4 February are now available.