Skip to content

Department of Education

Research projects

Research on Standards in GCSEs in Wales

OUCEA has a long history of research on the theory and practice of standard setting, as well as how standards in national qualifications are understood.  The pandemic showed a communications gap between the public and industry insiders, which this project seeks to explore and address.


We look at how standards are embedded throughout qualification lifecycles and how different GCSEs would be other approaches were taken.  Specifically, we discuss each of the following:

  • Norm-referencing - Candidates receive grades that tells us where they rank in relation to the population of students who could have taken the qualification in any year.  A formal norming study is required to understand the ranks for the broader population who could have taken the qualification.  
  • Cohort-referencing - Candidates receive grades that tells us where they rank in relation to the population who took the qualification in the same year. 
  • Attainment referencing - Candidates receive grades that reflects their holistic attainment in the qualification at a standard which is comparable with the attainment required for that outcome in previous year’s qualifications.
  • Comparable outcomes – Candidates receive, as a group, comparable grades to those which they would have received had they followed the course before a reform and taken the old qualification. 
  • Criterion-referencing - Candidates receive grades that tell us whether they met pre-determined performance criteria.  

We explore the history and use of these approaches, and their pros and cons.


Interviews with industry-insiders and teachers were conducted, regarding their views on standards and how they are best communicated to the education sector.


Ways of communicating about standards to teachers were investigated and materials constructed, to support public dialogue on these topics.


A study will be designed that could inform policy on how criterion-referencing could best be quality-assured.

This project is conducted in collaboration with Professor Steve Cooper (Cardiff Metropolitan University) and Kate Keating (Evenlode Communications Ltd.)

Presentations on this project were given at:


This research is funded by Qualifications Wales.

Research Team

Follow Us