Two is Good, Four is Better: On Inter-Subject Comparability.

What’s in a number?

In the old days it was all As, Bs, Cs, Ds… Now we have the 1 to 9 but it really doesn’t matter what you call it the idea that an A is an A or a 9 is a 9 is sacrosanct. A** or 9 or turn it up to 11, this is the bestest, most excellentest, the brightest…

When you see a report card and it’s all nines except in one subject it’s a six you think, oh dear, not so good at Maths or Art or whatever… but what if that assumption was wrong? Maybe the grade given by the teacher in that subject is a sign that the child is equally brilliant in that subject as the subjects in which the child achieved a 9… or is even more brillianter!!! Ridiculous, you’d say, it is clearly that the child is putting in less effort or is ‘just not cut out for that sort of thing’ but what if your assumption was wrong? What if nobody knew whether a 9 in Art was equal to a 9 in Physics and equal to a 9 in History? And even at GCSE… What if pupils make choices about what A levels to take and they drop a subject because they only got a 7 in it? Two As and a C for Uni not good enough, maybe, maybe not… And what about dropping subjects to take for GCSEs at option time? Let’s say your key stage 3 marking is based on some solid foundation like GCSE grades and a child got a 6 in French so decided not to take it, sensible?

Performance related pay… She always gets great results in Geography, whereas his results in Latin are always a couple of grades lower…

You would have thought all this was based on firm ground. The data doesn’t lie…

But no-one knows whether a 9 in D&T is equal to a 9 in English Literature. This is the issue of Inter-Subject Comparability and if you have ever assumed that the same grade in one subject is equal to that in another you have been mistaken, I repeat, no-one knows.

There is presently no requirement in our regulations for the exam boards to align subjects…

Although thinking has advanced considerably over time, we still see huge disagreements concerning how best to define and conceptualise inter-subject comparability, let alone how best to monitor it, let alone how best to respond to monitoring outcomes…

Ofqual 2015…

If you have a great assessment model in your school do you assume that the same mark in one subject is equal to that in another? If you feel that it is, how do you know? What decisions do you make if you assume all are equal? Should you review how these decisions are made if they are made on the assumption that all is equal?

Some subjects are more equal than others.

8 thoughts on “Two is Good, Four is Better: On Inter-Subject Comparability.

  1. Always good to see assessment assumptions exposed and challenged. At the (then) well-known direct grammar school that I once taught at, students did comparably well and were fairly consistent across the subject range, except in Modern Foreign Languages. In MFL, equally consistently, year after year, students scored about 20% below the marks in other subjects.

    As far as one could tell the teaching was of equally high quality, certainly the students appeared to be equally as industrious. So was it just that the Brits are notoriously poor at languages , or just that the languages exams just really were harder?


  2. Excellent points, well made. As a Head of Drama, I’ve long believed it is harder for GCSE Drama students to get an A* in Drama than some other subjects, because the grade boundaries have been fixed so that only 3% of students in any given year can get A*. Therefore, not only are inter-subject comparisons spurious, so are comparisons of different year groups within the same subject. What are your thoughts?


  3. Another thought-provoking article! On the whole, I suspect that the comparability issue is usually dealt with (unsatisfactorily) in terms of norm referencing. There is also an issue regarding the amount of teaching time and homework/study time allocated to subjects over KS1, 2 & 3. In most schools you would find that English and maths have double the amount of timetable space allocated to, for example history and geography. In turn, even these humanities would have double the time given to art, music, or drama. Picking up students at KS4 for an arts GCSE, who have had less than an hour a week studying your subject to develop their skills, poses a particular challenge. This would be exacerbated if they were expected to perform at the same equivalent level in, for example, English as they would in art, which has few transferable skills in common with much of the curriculum.


  4. I thought we did know – and I thought we knew that there was no way to make grades comparable across subjects and that we shouldn’t ever believe they are. Have I lived in an alternate timeline up till now?


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