GCSE 'rigged to help more students pass'

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GCSE results were "fixed" to mask the poorest performance by mathematics students in almost a decade, a senior examiner revealed last night.

David Kent, a chairman of the Edexcel exam board for nine years, claimed that he was forced to lower the pass mark by about eight percentage points to ensure that thousands of students managed to pass the exam.

His allegations, reported in today's Sunday Times, will add considerable fuel to the long-running controversy about whether exam pass rates have been artificially manipulated. Those who maintain that easier exams and more generous marking have concealed falling standards are likely to seize on Mr Kent's statements.

Mr Kent, who stepped down from his post two weeks ago, said that the pass grade had always been at least 50 per cent for maths until this year, when it was dropped to around 42 per cent. He said: "If we had set the grade C boundary at 50 per cent, the proportion passing would have been considerably less. In fact, it would have been so low that we didn't even consider it."

Even with the drop, the number of A*-C grades was still down by 1 per cent.

Mr Kent, who oversaw the marking of papers for 400,000 pupils this summer, said that it was impossible to tell whether or not standards were improving as exam boards were required to ensure roughly the same number of passes regardless of marks.

"You can't tell from the results whether kids are getting better or worse at maths because the rules say the proportion passing should be around the same as previous years," he said.

His comments could further undermine confidence in the exam, with several public schools, including Eton, already considering dropping GCSEs altogether.

However, Edexcel defended its policy and said the implementation of a revised syllabus, including more algebra, circle theorem and data handling, had made the exams harder. The exam board's chief executive, John Kerr, said: "It was a new syllabus and that takes time to settle in. It would have been unfair to penalise candidates."

Charles Clarke, the Education Secretary, has appointed Mike Tomlinson, the former chief inspector of schools, to consider the future of the GCSE as part of a review of qualifications for students aged 14 to 19.

Leading schools, which have complained that GCSE exams no longer manage to stretch bright students, say that they would do better to concentrate on qualifications for university entry.

But ministers are desperate to restore public confidence in exams after last year's A-level grading fiasco, which led to the resignation of Sir William Stubbs from the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the exams regulator that he headed, and contributed to the downfall of the then Education Secretary, Estelle Morris.

Mr Clarke and David Miliband, the School Standards Minister, have been at pains to emphasise the continued importance of the examination while long-term reform is considered.