Pass marks for GCSEs in England need to be pushed upwards to catch up with high performing education systems in Asia, say researchers from the Education Policy Institute.
GCSE results are being changed to grades 9 to 1, with the first such grades to be published this week.
But there will be two different pass marks – grade 4 as a “standard” pass and grade 5 as a “strong” pass.
Researchers say pupils need to be at grade 5 to match global rivals.
The study from the Education Policy Institute says England’s school system faces an “immense challenge” if it is going to match the levels of achievement in countries such as Singapore, South Korea, Hong Kong and Japan.
GCSEs in England are being made more challenging and will be decided by final exams rather than coursework, with the first results of these new-style GCSEs being published for English and maths this week.
These will be graded from 9 to 1, with a grade 4 being counted as a “standard” pass, similar to a grade C.
But the researchers say that on average pupils should be achieving a “strong” pass at grade 5, if England is going to keep up with international competitors.
At present, the researchers say, only 40% of pupils in state schools have reached this “world-class standard”.
To keep up in maths, the study says, it would require an increase of over a third of pupils getting top grades and an average above grade 5.
“The old C grade is not an adequate national aspiration if England wants to compete with top education nations,” says David Laws, former Education Minister and executive chairman of the Education Policy Institute.
“This analysis highlights the gulf between education outcomes in England and the performance of the world’s best education nations,” he said.
“In certain subjects, such as maths, England needs both to significantly raise the number of top performers and almost halve the number of low performers if it is to compete with the world’s best.”
There have been warnings about confusion over having two pass grades – with universities using different versions of a pass in their entry requirements.