GCSE and A-level results 2022: what is grade inflation?

After significant rises in GCSE and A-level grades during the pandemic, Tes looks at the issue of grade inflation – and the steps that have been put in place to prevent it this year
3rd August 2022, 8:00am


GCSE and A-level results 2022: what is grade inflation?

Flying high balloons

Grade inflation is a phrase that you could hear a lot over the next few weeks as students receive their GCSE and A-level results after in-person exams were held for the first time since 2019.

But what is grade inflation? Why does it occur? And does it really matter? Tes offers a brief overview of the issue below.

GCSE and A-level results 2022: the issue of grade inflation

Grade inflation refers to an upward trend in the average grades awarded to students for a particular academic qualification.

In recent years there has been much debate about student performance and whether progressively higher grades have been awarded for work that would have received less credit in the past.

Grade inflation, if it happens in our education system, is potentially very harmful because it diminishes the value of grades awarded over the years and calls into question the credibility of the exams system.

Grade inflation in 2020 and 2021

Because of the disruption to education caused by the Covid pandemic, students did not sit external exams in 2020 and 2021. Instead, GCSE, A-level and Btec grades were calculated using assessments conducted in schools. Centre-assessed grades (CAGs) were used in 2020, and teacher-assessed grades (TAGs) were used in 2021.

As a result of using CAGs rather than exams, grade inflation hit a record high in 2020, with 76 per cent of GCSE entries scoring a 4/C grade - considered a standard “pass” - or better in England, compared with 67.1 per cent in 2019.

There were also significant rises in A-level grades, with 87.5 per cent of entries achieving A*-C grades in 2020, compared with 75.5 per cent in 2019.

In 2021, grade inflation was even higher. Under the TAG awarding system, 76.9 per cent of entries scored a 4/C grade or better at GCSE. 

A-level grades also rose again, with 88.2 per cent achieving A*-C grades using TAGs.

Grade inflation was highest for the top grades. In A levels, the proportion of A/A* grades rose from 25.2 per cent in 2019 to 44.3 per cent in 2021. At GCSE the increase wasn’t as severe, but the proportion of grades 7 and above rose from 20.7 per cent in 2019 to 28.5 per cent in 2021.

Analysis revealed that grades were highest among wealthier students, showing a widening of the disadvantage gap. There was also concern that the proportion of top grades in A levels increased by three times more in private schools, widening the gap between state-school educated and private school-educated students.

How will grades be returned to 2019 levels?

Ofqual will be using 2022 as the first year in a “two-step return” to 2019 grade standards. This year grading will be pegged to a midpoint between 2021 and 2019 but below 2020.

However, to do this, unlike with the disastrous intervention in 2020, this year there will be no algorithm used to try to reduce grade inflation and return the distribution of grades towards 2019 levels.

Ofqual chief Dr Jo Saxton says there will be “no quota of grades” and instead, during the awarding process (when grade boundaries are decided), the exams watchdog will be “lowering the bar” and won’t be expecting students to “meet the same performance standard as in previous years”.

What measures are in place to prevent grade inflation in normal years?

Ofqual and the Office for Students seek to maintain the integrity of standards across qualifications. In recent years both organisations have had to investigate concerns around the validity of the internally assessed “old-style” Btec qualifications, as well as a rise in the number of students leaving university with first-class degrees.

Cath Jadhav, associate director of standards and comparability at Ofqual, explains that several measures are in place to guard against grade inflation.

“Ofqual works with exam boards using a number of measures, including statistical analysis, to maintain the standards from one year to the next,” Jadhav explains.

“We do this at cohort level, and between different exam boards, to make sure that it isn’t any easier to get a grade 4 with one board than another.” 

How do grade boundaries work?

While it is inevitable that, across boards and over years, exam papers will display some variation in the level of difficulty, grade boundaries are set at the end of the marking period and are altered to account for this.

When setting grade boundaries, senior examiners will compare scripts with those of previous years and explore the key stage 2 data for that cohort to reach logical conclusions about where students’ progress is expected to be by this examination series. 

“The exam boards assume that, in the absence of any other evidence, the progress between KS2 and GCSE will be the same year on year,” Jadhav says.

There have been recent reforms to the GCSE, A-level and vocational specifications, and new 9-1 GCSE grading systems were introduced. 

These reforms involved the inclusion of more challenging content and a grade 9 at GCSE. They also reduced (or removed entirely) the credit given for internally assessed components in many subjects. 

Ofqual also put guidance in place on how the exams should be marked, the details of which are explained in this video.

What is the National Reference Test?

Finally, Ofqual has introduced additional measures to help track student performance, such as the National Reference Test, which is designed to help detect changes in student performance in English and maths.  

The test indicates the percentage of students who are predicted to achieve at least a grade 4, 5 or 7 in their GCSEs. The results of the test are analysed each year and changes are taken into account when final GCSEs grades are awarded.

This process aims to ensure that grade inflation is avoided, and that genuine improvements are recognised so that the GCSE grades students receive are a true reflection of their performance in the assessment.

Do changes in performance mean artificially inflated grades?

There are many factors that need to be taken into consideration when exploring real or perceived examples of grade inflation, and an upward trend doesn’t necessarily mean that grades have been artificially inflated. Student performance may have genuinely improved or there may be something else contributing to the overall picture.

Jadhav gives the example of early entry as a reason why grades have appeared inflated in the past: “Sometimes an increase [in the number] of higher grades can be due to the changes in the way students are entered. A few years ago, we saw a lot of students being entered early for GCSE and then having a second chance of sitting it, and then this can mean that the national results look very different.”

Whatever the case, exam boards and regulatory bodies have a duty to closely analyse student performance year on year and investigate any significant changes in trends in grade distribution to prevent artificial grade inflation in the future.

The ‘sawtooth effect’

The “sawtooth effect” is a student exam performance pattern that can be seen when assessments, such as GCSEs and A levels, are reformed. 

The sawtooth effect refers to the decrease that is seen in exam performance when a new specification is introduced, and then the improvement in exam performance in subsequent years. The name “sawtooth” comes from the jagged shape this creates when plotted on a graph.

You can read more about it in Tes’ guide to the sawtooth effect and its implications for teachers.

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