A-level results: Has 'stretch' really squeezed grades?

Analysis from Catherine Lough, who considers whether Michael Gove's qualification reforms are responsible for the end of grade inflation

Students opening A-level results

In 2014, when he announced his controversial A-level and GCSE reforms, then education secretary Michael Gove said the new “more ambitious” exams “with greater stretch” would “address the pernicious damage caused by grade inflation and dumbing down, which have undermined students’ achievements”.

Today's A-level results might seem to vindicate his view, with the proportion of entries achieving A* grades the lowest since 2013, just as the third tranche of the reformed qualifications were sat for the first time.


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Just 7.8 per cent of entries were awarded the top grade, down from 8 per cent last year, and the proportion of A*/A grades has also decreased across all subjects, from 26.4 to 25.5 per cent. But in terms of whether this reflects a move towards higher standards and more “stretch” at A level, the picture is more complex.

Larger cohort

First, the general reduction in grade inflation has much more to do with exams regulator Ofqual’s comparable outcomes – pegging grades to previous years, after taking into account a cohort’s ability – than it does to any new qualifications. Second, this year’s drop in the proportion of A*/A grades is likely to be caused by a slightly larger cohort size, which can mean a broader spread of grades.

While there has been a 1.3 per cent decrease in the number of entries since last year, the number of 18-year-olds nationally has declined by a larger 2.9 per cent, meaning that a higher proportion of pupils nationally have taken A levels this year.

Larger cohorts mean a wider spectrum of ability, and this is a more probable cause of the reduced proportion of top grades than “ambitious” exams.

Girls defy predictions

Meanwhile, girls have defied predictions in securing a higher proportion of grades that are A*/A than boys, although they still lag slightly behind when it comes to A* grades.

This builds on last year when girls had narrowed the gender gap for entries receiving an A* and entries graded A*/A. This summer, girls also continued to narrow the gap at A* with 7.5 per cent of their entries gaining the top grade compared with 8.2 per cent of boys – although this is was down to boys doing worse rather than girls getting better.

Nonetheless, this suggests predictions that girls would be disadvantaged by the new, more exam-focused linear assessments may be wide of the mark.

Entries in both English and maths are down, which some have blamed on the new, “tougher” courses at GCSE that may have put off weaker candidates and reduced cohort sizes. However, while English has suffered, this is not true for other essay-based subjects. History has seen an increase of 5 per cent in entries since last year and psychology is also doing well, with an 8 per cent rise in candidates. But it is politics that is the star of 2019, flourishing with a 9.8 per cent rise in entries. More students eager to unravel the complexities of Brexit, perhaps?

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