We have investigated the concerns of teachers and other subject experts that fewer students are choosing to study modern foreign language (MFL) GCSEs because they believe it is harder to achieve top grades in these subjects compared to others. We have conducted a thorough review of the evidence that GCSE French, German and Spanish are severely graded in comparison to other subjects. On the balance of the evidence we have gathered, we have judged that there is a sufficiently strong case to make an adjustment to grading standards in French and German, but not Spanish.
Dr Michelle Meadows, Director of Strategy, Risk and Research, said:
Building on our extensive body of work, we have looked at this issue from a wide range of different perspectives. We are satisfied that a sufficiently strong case exists for us to intervene to adjust grading standards in GCSE French and German. We are talking to exam boards about how best to implement this adjustment.
In reaching our decision, we have considered extensive research including: statistical evidence; contextual data, including the numbers taking the subjects; the quality of students’ work through looking at how GCSE work at particular grades relates to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR); and the judgement of senior examiners responsible for awarding decisions. We have also engaged with a broad range of stakeholders, including academics in higher education, subject experts and teachers to inform our view. We have judged all the evidence against 4 criteria – which consider statistical measures, evidence of a negative impact from the existing position, as well as the potential impact of an adjustment on those who use the qualification and on standards – to reach a balanced decision.
We will now require the exam boards that offer these subjects to make adjustments to align grading standards in French and German with Spanish. Aligning outcomes in this way will make French and German less severely graded in statistical terms. The adjustment may vary in the two subjects and at different grades. We will work closely with exam boards to determine the most appropriate approach, which we will put in place for the 2020 exam series. If necessary, this adjustment may be phased over more than one year.
As we set out in our decisions document, in line with the approach we have taken in similar circumstances on previous occasions, for example when we announced an adjustment to grade standards as a result of the impact of native speakers in A level French, German and Spanish in 2017, we will not require exam boards to retrospectively regrade students that took these subjects in earlier years.
Alongside our work on grading standards, we have also published the latest research from our ongoing programme to review the recent qualification reforms. It indicates that the reformed MFL GCSEs are functioning more effectively than their legacy versions. For example, the marks students achieve are now more balanced across the speaking, listening, writing and reading components, so their grade is now a better reflection of performance across all 4 skills.
Our programme of work has also included workshops with MFL teachers. Teachers have told us that, overall, the new linear structure, with all exams at the end of the course, is better for students’ language development. And they are supportive of the removal of controlled assessment. However, they have shared concerns about some questions being too difficult, particularly in the listening and reading assessments. And they expressed a view, which we also heard in our investigation into inter-subject comparability, that subject content may be a reason why MFL is seen as difficult. We have shared this feedback with the Department for Education.
Timeline of work
- In 2015, we undertook a research project to consider comparability of different GCSEs, AS and A level subjects in England
- This work led to a conference, in 2016, to debate the issue further. We published 6 working papers, and further historical material, which examined the issues presented by the concept of inter-subject comparability in greater depth
- Following the conference, we conducted a survey of stakeholder views on a range of potential policy approaches to address the issue
- In 2017 we decided not to revise grading standards in all GCSEs and A level subjects to achieve greater inter-subject comparability on a statistical basis. However, we undertook to consider grading standards in specific subjects where stakeholders had expressed concern that this decision would potentially lead to students being treated unfairly – namely, in A level sciences and A level and GCSE MFL
We established 4 criteria against which to judge the evidence, to determine whether there was a ‘compelling case’ to adjust established grade standards in a subject. The criteria were:
- statistical measures of subject difficulty show evidence of persistent grading severity over several years
- persuasive evidence of the potential detrimental impact caused by severe grading on those who use the qualification, and on society at large, over several years
- evidence which shows that those who use the qualification and those responsible for maintaining the grading standard judge an adjustment to be acceptable
- likely benefit to users of the qualification and society as a whole from a change to grading standards must outweigh any potential negative effects
- In November 2018 we announced our decision on inter-subject comparability in A level sciences and MFL. We concluded that there was not a compelling case to adjust grading standards in these subjects, but committed to working with exam boards to ensure they did not become more severely graded in future
In contrast, in our review at GCSE, we judged there to be sufficient evidence, against our criteria, to support an adjustment:
- across a range of statistical measures French and German appear to be consistently harder than other GCSE subjects
- both subjects have experienced a significant decline in GCSE entries in recent years, and similar falls at A level
- the CEFR study showed that students were currently producing work which was of sufficient quality to register against the framework, and that a minor adjustment would be unlikely to threaten this for students achieving grade 4 and above
- on balance, awarders felt that an adjustment in these subjects would be acceptable – a view which was strongly confirmed by most stakeholders
- the evidence is less strong in GCSE Spanish which does not appear, statistically, to be severely graded and entries are not declining – two of our criteria to determine a ‘compelling case’ have therefore not been fulfilled