Issue 1: Severe grading
Research into grading at GCSE and A-level has revealed that Modern Languages are graded more severely than most other subjects. A pupil who takes a GCSE or A-level in a language is, on average, likely to get half a grade lower in their language than they will in their other subjects. For example a pupil who gets a mid to low C in English is likely to get a D in their language GCSE.
Issue 2: Preparedness for university-level study.
When the severe grading issue was discussed at the recent LLAS workshop for Heads of Department, it prompted discussion about another entirely separate issue—the extent to which students are prepared for language studies in higher education. Students are getting good grades at GCSE and A-level, but are not as well prepared as university lecturers would like.
Issue 3: the proportions of students getting higher grades in language GCSE.
Over 70% of students got a GCSE grade C or above in French, German and Spanish in 2012 compared to 58% in mathematics. This would suggest that it is easier to get a higher grade in languages than mathematics. This is fairly straightforward explanation here: the students who take languages GCSE are generally speaking of high academic ability than the cohort as a whole (nearly everyone takes mathematics, irrespective of academic ability). The GCSE data alone does not tell us this, but when we examine all of an individual student’s grades we can see that those who take GCSE languages will, on average, do worse than they will in other subjects.
Consequences for higher education
Some in higher education welcome severe grading—it could be argued that those who succeed at school, despite severe grading are those who will do best in higher education. The reverse argument is that those seeking to recruit school pupils to study languages at university are essentially trying to convince students to study their worst subject (assuming that pupils consider there to be a link between grades and how good they are at the subject). Work by Felix Maringe on university course choice found that employability was an important factor in the choice or subject, but only alongside performance. If potential students believe that they are not as good at subject A as they are at subject B they are less likely to choose it.
The argument about severe grading is entirely based on averages, and, as the statistics joke goes it’s normal to be deviant; some students do consider languages to be their best subject and their grades will support this belief. Others will be getting more than half a grade lower on languages compared to their other subjects. Grading adjustment could benefit universities enormously in terms of recruitment—if students did as well (or better) in languages than in their other subjects more would consider languages to be their best subjects and choose them in higher education.
Questions about the actual curriculum and standards are actually separate questions entirely. Severe grading is about relative performance, ensuring the highest performing students in languages get the same grades as the highest performing students in other subjects.