The first summer exams in Wales are well underway amid complaints that some are “unfair”. Exam board the WJEC has explained how grade boundaries for this summer’s exams in Wales will work slightly differently to pre-pandemic years.
All maintained schools in Wales run the WJEC’s exams. The board has come under fire this week after an error in an English A level and complaints that some maths papers have been “ridiculously hard”.
Marking this year will be more generous to take into account pandemic disruption – and some content has been removed from the exam syllabus. While grading will be lower than for the last two years of assessed grades, exam content has been cut by as much as 40% in summer 2022 and “grading will be more generous than in a normal year”, said the WJEC. Meanwhile Some students have been left in tears and distraught saying papers had not been as expected.
How grade boundaries work
While some grade boundaries are expected to be lowered this summer, that doesn’t mean all will be, said Elaine Carlile, the WJEC’s Director of qualifications and assessment and responsible officer (CORR).
Grade boundaries are the minimum number of marks needed to achieve each grade. Although exam papers are theoretically written to the same level of difficulty, they vary each year. Grade boundaries aim to ensure that students are not disadvantaged by papers varying from one year to the next.
So if a question is deemed harder one year grade boundaries go down – and visa versa. Separate grade boundaries are set for each exam paper and for any non-examination assessment.
Some qualifications just have a pass grade and here the awarding process makes sure that students have reached the required standard to achieve the qualification. Qualifications like GCSE and A levels have a number of different grades which indicate a student’s level of attainment.
Once all the marking has been completed this summer, the WJEC’s awarding committee will meet as usual to decide where to set this year’s grade boundaries. In pre-Covid years they would have considered the previous summer’s results but with no sat exams since 2019 they will look at a “midway point” between those results and assessed grades in 2021.
Setting grade boundaries the principal examiners also look at how all students performed on each question – so if most found a question hard, or easy, boundaries can go up or down accordingly.
“If questions we thought were easy the students found hard we look at where the minimum mark for a grade should be,“ said Ms Carlile.
“We are not comparing grade boundaries this year to a normal year. We are looking at a mid way point between 2019 and 2021. The regulator Qualifications Wales will provide methodology on that soon.
“There may be some situations where grade boundaries are lowered, or, where adaptations are in place, grade boundaries may be adjusted. That’s on a qualification by qualification basis.
“We have to make sure we meet the policy that people expect generous grading this year (to take account of varied Covid disruption to teaching and learning).”
She denied that any questions have been made harder to balance out lowering grade boundaries. Some people have complained that maths A and AS level questions have been harder than those pre-pandemic.
Ms Carlile said that was not the case but those qualifications were reformed in 2018 and therefore any past papers before that year would look different.
“We would never go out to make an exam harder than it should be. We don’t ask the same questions every year but we always make sure questions are comparable in standard.
“There may be one or two questions that are easier or harder one year and that’s how we account for grade boundaries. Qualifications Wales have announced a policy for more generous grading this year. We have not done anything this year to compensate against that.
“Questions on papers this year are not harder than pre-pandemic. With maths (AS and A level) there was a reformed specification in 2018 and 2019.
“I have looked at some of the comments on social media where people say they have done lots of papers going back, but those pre-2018 would have been a different specification. Schools should be aware of this and it is clear on our website.”
She said schools had been told about adaptations to exams – to take account of pandemic disruption – late last year. She could not comment on how teachers had responded but flatly denied claims that some papers contained content that should not have been there.
“I would not like to say teachers have got anything right or wrong. We understand how people interpret things differently.
“No content that should not be there is there. All our (exam) papers are based on the adaptations we put in place. In some we said what would not be assessed.”
Describing how examiners are responding to two years of cancelled summer exams she said they also looked at autumn and January exams which were held in the last two years. Grade boundaries for some of these were lowered. She said pupils’ performance in these had shown “a good standard”.
“Our examiners are well briefed and trained and there are structures in place. There are lots of reviews before sign offs. We are doing everything we can to make sure this summer’s grades are fair and meet the Qualifications Wales objectives for generous grading – we want to ensure students receive a fair result.”
This is how students will be graded after error in English language and literature A level
The WJEC was forced to apologise earlier this week when questions on two set text Shakespeare plays were left off an A level English Language and Literature paper.
The exam board said students affected will receive grades based on other questions they had answered on the paper, course work and other papers sat for the exam. The WJEC has launched an inquiry into what went wrong and a project group will “systematically go through” marks for each student to ensure they are not disadvantaged
This is how exams are marked
After students leave the exam room their answers are marked online, except for subjects where this is not possible, such as art and design. Examiners are trained to mark specific sections of papers, rather than the whole thing. So one paper will have more than one examiner marking separate questions. All marks are checked three times. There are also spot checks and sample papers, a WJEC spokesperson said.