Variation in passing standards for graduation-level knowledge items at UK medical schools

Med Educ. 2017 Jun;51(6):612-620. doi: 10.1111/medu.13240. Epub 2017 Mar 13.


Objectives: Given the absence of a common passing standard for students at UK medical schools, this paper compares independently set standards for common 'one from five' single-best-answer (multiple-choice) items used in graduation-level applied knowledge examinations and explores potential reasons for any differences.

Methods: A repeated cross-sectional study was conducted. Participating schools were sent a common set of graduation-level items (55 in 2013-2014; 60 in 2014-2015). Items were selected against a blueprint and subjected to a quality review process. Each school employed its own standard-setting process for the common items. The primary outcome was the passing standard for the common items by each medical school set using the Angoff or Ebel methods.

Results: Of 31 invited medical schools, 22 participated in 2013-2014 (71%) and 30 (97%) in 2014-2015. Schools used a mean of 49 and 53 common items in 2013-2014 and 2014-2015, respectively, representing around one-third of the items in the examinations in which they were embedded. Data from 19 (61%) and 26 (84%) schools, respectively, met the inclusion criteria for comparison of standards. There were statistically significant differences in the passing standards set by schools in both years (effect sizes (f2 ): 0.041 in 2013-2014 and 0.218 in 2014-2015; both p < 0.001). The interquartile range of standards was 5.7 percentage points in 2013-2014 and 6.5 percentage points in 2014-2015. There was a positive correlation between the relative standards set by schools in the 2 years (Pearson's r = 0.57, n = 18, p = 0.014). Time allowed per item, method of standard setting and timing of examination in the curriculum did not have a statistically significant impact on standards.

Conclusions: Independently set standards for common single-best-answer items used in graduation-level examinations vary across UK medical schools. Further work to examine standard-setting processes in more detail is needed to help explain this variability and develop methods to reduce it.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Competence / standards*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Curriculum
  • Education, Medical, Undergraduate / standards*
  • Educational Measurement / methods*
  • Humans
  • Professional Competence
  • Reference Standards
  • Schools, Medical*
  • Students, Medical / statistics & numerical data*
  • United Kingdom