UK Court Denies Challenge Over GCSE Grading Flap

In London, two High Court judges dismissed a suit brought against Ofqual, the agency that regulates student examinations in the United Kingdom. As reported in The Telegraph, a group of students, teachers unions, schools and local councils joined to bring a complaint that Ofqual had changed the grading standards between January and July of last year.

The court agreed that the testing standards had been unfair for high school students taking the all-important GCSE exams last summer. In response to charges that exam grades were being inflated, Ofqual had tried to impose a tougher standard. Using statistics from these students' exams five years ago, they had predicted how many were expected to pass with a C or better. The C grade is the minimum required to go on to university.

But the complaint charges that as many as 10,000 students were illegally deprived of their passing grades, since Ofqual instructed its graders to make sure the final grade distribution did not look inflated. For students who took the exams in January, the standards remained the same. In effect, the January grades pushed down the July grades so that the average would not appear to give too many students an easy pass.

Lord Justice Elias, sitting with Mrs Justice Sharp, said Ofqual had appreciated there were features which had operated unfairly and proposed numerous changes for the future designed to ensure problems that had arisen would not be repeated.

The judge said: "However, having now reviewed the evidence in detail, I am satisfied that it was indeed the structure of the qualification itself which is the source of such unfairness as has been demonstrated in this case, and not any unlawful action by either Ofqual or the AOs (exam boards)".

The judges admitted that the situation was "a matter of widespread and proper concern," but dismissed the suit since no laws had been broken.

Ofqual spokesman Glenys Stacey said that while Ofqual deeply appreciated thousands of students' disappointment, the agency felt that the court had affirmed that Ofqual "had made the right decisions for the right reasons." She quoted the judges' words that if the agency had not taken action to raise the grading standards, the exam grades would have been "debased" as many students received grades they did not deserve. "It is our job to secure standards," she concluded.

Dame Joan McVittie, spokesman for the plaintiffs, called herself "bitterly disappointed." Recognizing that the judge had distinguished between an outcome that was illegal and one that was merely unfair, she added, "it's a terribly hard lesson [for the young people] and it's going to affect their life chances." Students in July "were marked more harshly" than those in January, but in order to keep the grades the same from year to year, "Ofqual was entitled to do what they did, within the law."

Most importantly, the results may prevent many students from continuing their higher education. As a secondary concern, some of the schools that joined the complaint are in danger of losing their public funding. As many as 100 academies, which receive public funding but are administered privately, may lose their funding due to low GCSE exam scores. The Ofqual controversy comes at a time when the Coalition government has been moving toward radical reform in the British school system. Education Minister Michael Gove has even proposed abolishing the GCSE, but for now, he has begun another qualifying certificate, the English Baccalaureate, which is based on grades received in a list of core classes.

02 15, 2013
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