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Knowing your child’s exam board can be of important use, and we don’t mean when choosing between the 20 different types of revision guides in the bookshop.
There are five main examination boards that your child can be placed on: AQA, OCR, Edexcel, WJEC, and CCEA. The question is – what does my child’s grades really mean if the exam boards are different? An A may be easier to achieve on one exam board rather than another, so are both A’s? What, then, does make an A?
Who are the main exam boards in the UK?
Vaks will start with a breakdown of the exam boards so you can understand the difference.
AQA: The Assessment and Qualifications Alliance. AQA is the UK’s largest exam board; over 3.5 million exams are taken by students with AQA every year, while AQA awards 42% of A-levels and 49% of full GCSE courses. AQA is also an education charity and merged a combination of examination boards in 2000; it is taught in 44 countries.
OCR: Oxford Cambridge and RSA Examinations. The non-profit group was created in 1998 when Cambridge Assessment Group (formally known as The University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate (UCLES), which was founded in 1858; also operates in 150+ countries and is Europe’s largest assessment agency) merged with RSA Examinations Board. OCR is one of the three leading awarding bodies in the UK, and private school pupils sit 10% of OCR’s exams.
EDEXCEL: Name derived from ‘educational excellence’. Edexcel is the UK’s only privately owned exam board, and was established in 1996 after the merging of the University of London Examinations and Assessment Council (ULEAC) and the Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC). In 2005 Pearson took control, and Edexcel’s examinations are suitable for students aged between 14 and 19, while 8.2 million exam scripts are managed in over 85 countries.
WJEC: Welsh Joint Education Committee. The Welsh exam board is a charity that was founded in 1948. WJEC was traditionally taught in Welsh schools; however, their syllabus is now studied by many English schools (more than 5,000 compared to less than 500 in Wales).
CCEA: Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment. CCEA is Northern Irelands awarding exam body which originated in 1994. CCEA is recognised as a state body and guides the government regarding the content taught in Northern Ireland’s schools.
Which exam board is the hardest?
It is no secret that variation exists between the different examination boards – this can include the style of questions, the content included, and the difficulty level of the paper. Although there isn’t anything to worry too much over (all exam boards are subjected to rigorous processes to ensure standardisation) it is important to still be aware of these differences.
In the recent GCSE exams of 2017 for example, the requirement for students sitting the new higher Maths paper meant that they only had to achieve 18% to pass, which is a 4 (this is comparable to the old C). This meant that students had to successfully answer less than a fifth of the papers marks. To achieve an A, which is now equivalent to a 7; students had to score 52% in the exam.
In 2016 the marks were slightly different, and you needed to get close to 40% in order to pass. This year, standard passes were being given out by one exam board to students who achieved just 15%!
The English and Maths exams have increased in difficulty and were dubbed by experts to be the hardest exams since the 1980’s O Levels. However, the pass mark has been lowered so considerably that critics such as Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, have regarded it as “more or less giving away the grade.”
Even though the pass marks have been lowered, the proportion of students achieving at least an A grade (or 7) decreased to 20% with a drop of 0.5%. This, however, makes 2017 the lowest year since 2007, and marks it as the sixth year of decreasing levels, while achieving a C (or 4) grade is at its lowest since 2008, dropping 0.6% since 2016, which is now at 66.3%.
How do the grade boundaries change between exam boards?
AQA: Pass (Grade 4) 2017 = 19.2% of marks 2016 = 53.4% of marks
OCR: Pass (Grade 4) 2017 = 15.3% of marks 2016 = 30.5% of marks
Edexcel: Pass (Grade 4) 2017 = 17% of marks 2016 = 35% of marks
You can see that there is quite a difference in exam grade boundaries between the examination boards. Although one exam board’s pass markings may be lower than another, it is also crucial to consider that you cannot find the ‘easiest’ exam board, as each exam board adjusts their grade boundaries depending on how hard or easy the paper was. OCR has been known for their slightly more difficult examinations (they had to rewrite their GCSE Maths paper and withdraw their new language A-levels), and in 2016, Greenhead College students left an OCR Maths exam in tears due to the paper’s challenges. However, we can see here that OCR has the lowest pass rate for the Maths higher exam, so it really differs from paper to paper.
The teacher and the school can choose what exam board to follow based on the classes’ needs and the teacher’s interests. Conversely, teachers can overestimate the power of certain questions, as research portrays that teachers underestimate multiple choice questions difficulty, while open-ended questions can be easier to tackle than first thought. There is also evidence portraying that teachers have ‘played the system’ by selecting examination boards on the easiness of their questions.
Why is it important to know your child’s exam board?
1. Help revise the appropriate syllabus -> Knowing your child’s exam board can help your child’s learning process. If your child was studying for an AQA geography exam then you could go on the AQA website, look at the subject content, lesson plans and exam criteria, and know exactly what is expected of your child. By looking at the requirements that your child is expected to follow, and the content that they must learn, it can help you, help your child, in their learning. This can include revising appropriate syllabus content as well as helping prepare exam content – for instance, Edexcel commonly includes multiple choice questions, so if you know your child is about to sit an Edexcel paper, then it would be useful to help practice those style of questions, while OCR focuses on more context-based ones.
2. Find the right revision material-> It can end up being another excuse not to revise: you get back from the bookshop and realise you’ve bought the wrong revision guide. You bought the right AQA English and Edexcel Maths book, but you thought the science was AQA as well, or did they say OCR? They are always on their phone, why won’t they answer it now?! Knowing your child’s exam board from the get-go means you can help your child with organisation during this busy and stressful period. Buy the exam books in advance, and go on the appropriate examination websites to print out those exam papers and have them sitting on the desk for when they arrive home!
3. Influence course decisions-> When changing schools, undertaking school entrance exams, or picking A-Level modules, it can be useful to check what exam boards the subjects fall under. If your child is thinking of completing their A-levels at a new location or are considering moving to a Sixth Form College, then looking at the different exam boards may help. In one academic institute they may have OCR history, and in another, have AQA history, and the content taught can differ. Researching what examination board your subject has, and what is taught, can help your decision when choosing between institutes.