Missing the mark at GCSE English

Getting above or failing to reach thresholds in high-stakes public examinations is an important feature of success or failure in many people’s lives. One well-known example is the need to obtain a grade C in GCSE English. New research by the Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) analyses the costs of narrowly failing, or only just achieving, a grade C in English GCSE.

Stephen Machin and colleagues tracked the progress of more than 49,000 pupils who took their English GCSE in 2013 and got a grade C or D, and then looked at how they progressed over the next three years. Results showed that pupils of similar ability have significantly different trajectories depending on whether they just pass or fail the exam. Pupils who continue in education post-16 may find that the options open to them are more limited, and may end up in settings with less-well performing peers. Those who narrowly miss out on a grade C have a lower probability of enrolling in a higher-level qualification – by at least nine percentage points. Furthermore, pupils who narrowly miss out on a grade C are more likely to drop out of education at age 18 (by about four percentage points), and are at increased risk of poorer prospects in the long term.

Source: Entry through the narrow door: the costs of just failing high stakes exams (April 2018), Centre for Vocational Education Research (CVER) Research Discussion Paper 014 

Implication of subject choice on university entry

The introduction of the English Baccalaureate (EBacc) performance measure for schools in England means that schools are incentivised to encourage pupils to study this set of subjects (to count towards the EBacc, a pupil must achieve GCSE grade C or above in a range of subjects including English, maths, history or geography, two sciences, and a language). But are some subjects “better” to study than others for getting to university?

A recent Centre for Longitudinal Studies Working Paper seeks to understand the implications of subject choices at age 14 (when pupils pick their GCSE options), and if these choices then play a part in whether pupils go to university and where they end up studying.

Using data collected from the longitudinal survey, Next Steps, Jake Anders and colleagues looked at the different probabilities of applying to university, entering university, and attending a high-status university for pupils who study the full set of subjects required for EBacc, compared to those who study other combinations of subjects. Using both regression modelling and propensity score matching to test the robustness of the results, they found that pupils who study the full set of EBacc subjects are slightly more likely to apply for and to attend university (a positive effect of 4 and 3 percentage points, respectively). However, the results from the regression model imply that pupils with a full set of EBacc subjects are less likely to get into a high-status university.

The researchers emphasise that the differences are not large, and ultimately it’s far more important to perform well in whatever subject is studied, so the likely implications of more pupils studying EBacc subjects should not be exaggerated.

Source: Incentivising specific combinations of subjects: does it make any difference to university access? (August 2017), CLS working paper 2017/11. Centre for Longitudinal Studies

Does background influence pupils’ subject choice?

A Centre for Longitudinal Studies working paper examined the roles of social class, parental education, income, gender  and ethnicity on pupils’ subject choice at GCSE.

Morag Henderson and colleagues examined information from more than 11,700 young people taking part in Next Steps (formerly the Longitudinal Study of Young People in England (LSYPE)), who were born in 1989-90 and attended state schools in England. They found that pupils from lower socio-economic backgrounds were less likely than their peers from higher socio-economic backgrounds to choose GCSE subjects that would enable them to go on to college – regardless of whether or not they were academically able.

Pupils whose parents only had GCSE-level education were also less likely than those with more-educated parents to study three or more “facilitating” subjects from the Russell Group’s Informed Choices guide. They were also less likely to take three or more academically “selective”’ subjects, such as German and maths and statistics, and more likely to choose applied GCSEs, such as leisure and tourism or applied manufacturing and engineering. As the highest level of parental education decreases, the odds of the students studying applied GCSEs increases.

For pupils from lower-income backgrounds, the findings were similar. Poorer pupils were less likely to choose selective and facilitating subjects and more likely to take applied GCSEs than their wealthier peers. Additionally, girls were more likely than boys to study applied GCSEs, as were those with special education needs.

Source:  Social class, gender and ethnic differences in subjects taken at age 14 (2016), Centre for Longitudinal Studies Working paper 2016/6

How UK students’ writing has changed since 1980

Research published by Cambridge Assessment shows how 16-year-old students’ writing in exams has changed since 1980.

Aspects of Writing has been published by Cambridge Assessment approximately every 10 years, initially using a sample from 1980. This latest phase of the study focuses on writing samples from 2014. Key findings include:

  • The percentage of spelling errors at the lowest level of achievement is higher in 2014 than in most years. The incidence of spelling errors has changed very little among the mid- and higher-achieving students.
  • There is some evidence that use of “other” punctuation marks such as semi-colons has increased among higher-achieving students but decreased sharply among the lowest-achieving students.
  • There is a cautious indication of a general improvement in the use of commas.
  • There is an increase in the use of simple sentences among higher-achieving students. The researchers observed that these students tended to use simple sentences for literary effect.
  • Students of all abilities are using less-complex sentence structures.
  • Students at most levels of achievement are using more paragraphs than their predecessors.
  • There was almost no evidence of candidates using “text-speak” abbreviations in their work.

Source: Variations in aspects of writing in 16+ English examinations between 1980 and 2014. Research Matters Special Issue 4 (2016), Cambridge Assessment

Behaviour incentives improve exam results for low-achieving students

Low-achieving students respond to incentives to increase their effort and engagement at school and do better than predicted on GCSE exams as a consequence. That is the main finding of a discussion paper published by the University of Bristol.

The project, led by Simon Burgess, Director of the Centre for Market and Public Organisation (CMPO), included more than 10,000 Year 11 students in 63 schools. The schools were recruited in the poorest parts of neighbourhoods in England and were randomised to one of the following treatment groups: financial incentives, non-financial incentives, or control. Students in the incentive treatment groups earned rewards every half-term based on inputs such as attendance, conduct, homework, and classwork, rather than for outputs such as assessment results. The financial incentive rewarded students with cash up to the value of £80 per half-term, while the non-financial incentive offered students the chance to qualify for a high-value event determined jointly by the school and students, such as a sporting event or trip to a theme park.

The researchers hoped to find that the incentives would improve effort and engagement and ultimately lead to improved GCSE performance even though the results themselves carried no rewards. The analysis showed that overall the impact of either financial or non-financial incentives on achievement was low, with small, positive but statistically insignificant effects on exam performance. However, among students with low predicted GCSE grades, those in the intervention groups got better marks than students in the control group, with treatment effects stronger for the financial incentives than the non-financial incentives (particularly in science). For students who were expected to do well, and already making an effort at school, the incentives made little difference.

Source: Understanding the response to financial and non-financial incentives in education: Field experimental evidence using high-stakes assessments (2016), Discussion Paper 16 / 678, University of Bristol

Out-of-school time study programmes improve results for poorer students

A project funded by the Nuffield Foundation looked at the effect of out-of-school-time (OST) study programmes on GCSE performance in England.

Using data from the Next Steps longitudinal study of young people, Francis Green and Nicola Pensiero from the Institute of Education recorded the results of those who undertook their GCSEs in 2006. They found that teacher-led OST study groups were moderately effective in improving overall GCSE performance, particularly for children from disadvantaged and lower socioeconomic backgrounds. For children whose parents were unemployed or in routine occupations, an improvement equivalent to approximately two grades was shown on their overall GCSE score.

While OST study programmes are available to children from all backgrounds in the vast majority of secondary schools in the UK, the research showed that 42% of children whose parents are unemployed take part compared to 46% of children from a professional background.

The research found no statistical benefit from programmes that were self-directed by students.

Source: Are out-of-school-time (OST) study programmes an effective way to improve the academic performance of socially disadvantaged children? (2016), UCL Institute of Education