The A level debate time of year

A level exam results are out today and once again the percentage of students getting the top grade has increased, there will, as always, be a debate about whether there has been real improvement or just grade inflation.

This year there will almost certainly be fewer university places than there are young people who want to go to university, indeed there may be as many as 100,000 disappointed applicants. I believe that there has been serious grade inflation and the people who suffer most are the students themselves.
When the proportion of top graded students has almost trebled since 1980 it is harder for admissions tutors to asses students just on their academic aptitude. A levels no longer provide a scale of achievement, they have become a binary assessment, either you got straight As or you didn’t.
When every applicant to a university course has straight As assessors have to look for other things, extra curricular activities, other areas of achievement etc. It is often the case that private schools give more focus and have more facilities to support these extra activities so it is little wonder that students with top grades from state schools are disadvantaged at selections.
Having devalued both skills training and non-academic achievement we have created not just an “all must have prizes” mindset but an “all must have the same prizes” mindset.
I’m sure that there will be the usual rush to condemn those who feel that grade inflation has happened, accusations that we’re undermining the hard working young people who got the top grades. The truth is that by grading work as A grade when in the past it would have been a B grade you are undermining the students who genuinely worked hard enough (and were bright enough) to get a proper A grade.
Also let’s remember that a B grade is still a bloody good grade and shouldn’t been seen as some kind of failure, which is what is happening by the bloating of the A grade band.
P.S. I wonder if I’ll get in trouble for saying bloody?

6 responses to “The A level debate time of year

  1. >> I wonder if I'll get in trouble for saying bloody.

    No I shouldn't think so, since that's quite different to calling Simon Hughes a dick.

  2. You are completely forgetting the new A* grade introduced this year. As it was only awarded to the top 8% that is roughly the same as the number awarded the old A grade in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Problem solved!

  3. A* doesn't really solve the problem of grade inflation. The real problem that grade inflation causes is that students need more years of study to attain the same standard. That's a huge hit on educational productivity, requiring lots of extra buildings and teachers.

    Of course, it keeps students off the dole queue, and even insults them by charging them student fees to obtain the education they formerly had for free at A level at school.

  4. I sort of agree with you about grade inflation but think that the real problem is that the exam was switched to a “criterion reference” exam in the 1980s but is still being used as a selection exam. Exams can only really be one thing or the other, not both. Selection tests usually examine a different mix of skills from criterion reference tests. Also, selection tests may adequately test the students but they do not test the teachers.
    See Record A'Level passess again!.

  5. A few years ago you were complaining that increased education spending was having little impact on grades. In fact you have demonstrated a clear corelation between education spending and A grades at A level – about 50% between 1997 and 2004, and we continue to see improvements.

    Rather than showing how much A levels have been devalued, we can now see that spending on education will get better results (something that every ex-public school boy knows well).

    Most universities take account of public v state schools when considering both grades and outside interests. Not that state school pupils are not disadvantaged when it comes to selection by top universities, but it is not difficult for universities to positively discrimiate if they choose to.

    Rather than a graduate tax why not just charge public school pupils twice as much for their university education – afterall they can afford it and they know the value of education. More sensibly remove the charitable tax break for public schools and the parents and spend the money on state schools and expanding university education for all the clever people in the country, not just the rich clever people. Some solutions are just so simple.

  6. In the last 40+ years we have suffered a series of distortions to the exam system for political reasons.
    I have only one GCSE (“A” grade in Russian) taken when I was 50 which is deemed to be superior to the French and Latin 'O' levels that I passed at 15 (because in those days we didn't have grades and, if we had my French would have been, at best, a 'B') despite my occasional need to use schoolboy French to communicate when I was in Russia (very rarely – in nearly every case saying “ne ponnamatiyou” in an english accent resulted in one or more locals coming forward to volunteer to translate for me).
    My son complained that when New Labour split the 'A' level course into A/S and 'A2' the chemistry textbook for each was only one-third of the size of the old 'A' level textbook – i.e. the new course was only two-thirds of the old.
    HYUFD does not know what he/she is talking about: the old 'S' levels required more knowledge as well as higher ability that 'A' levels which is why the Labour government cancelled them: the A* grade does not correlate to 'S' levels, which were a secondary determinant to Oxbridge entrance (the college exam to test ability was the most important) and a primary one for good red-brick universities in the 1960s

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