Decades of "grade inflation" ended this week as the proportion of pupils achieving the highest A-level grades dropped for the first time in 21 years.
The A* grade, introduced in 2010, was awarded to 7.9 per cent of entries this year, compared with 8.2 per cent last year, breaking the now familiar narrative of ever-increasing results and accusations of dumbing down.
The proportion of A-level entries gaining grade A or above also fell, to 26.6 per cent, lower than the 2009 level. It is the first time that the proportion of A grades has gone down since 1991.
Exam boards say that the fall is explained by a "different cohort profile" from last year. But some schools are claiming it means that the system is "corrupt" after coming under pressure to stop the annual increase in grades.
The drop follows a levelling off last year, with 27.0 per cent of students achieving A and A* grades in 2010 and 2011.
The shift has coincided with a greater emphasis from exams regulator Ofqual on pegging results to the performance of previous years. TES also understands that in meetings this year the watchdog instructed exam boards to err on the conservative side when deciding in borderline cases where grade boundaries should be placed.
Earlier this year Ofqual chief regulator Glenys Stacey said that the watchdog needed to find ways to "manage" the "persistent grade inflation" that had existed for "at least a decade".
The overall percentage of A-level entries gaining an A*-E pass went up for the 30th successive year, with a slight increase to 98 per cent. But that news, alongside Ofqual's denials that results have been "fixed", is unlikely to allay the fears of some schools that pupils have been unfairly penalised.
Kevin Stannard, a former exam board official and director of learning at the Girls' Day School Trust, which runs two academies and 24 independent schools, said that having a criterion-based exam system - which does not put a cap on the number of students allowed to achieve certain grades - leads to increasing numbers of pupils getting AA* passes.
"Grade inflation is a systemic feature of criterion-based exams, so if there isn't a record percentage of pupils getting top grades again this year, it suggests something quite disturbing: the system isn't so much broken as corrupt," he said. "Someone will have decided to raise the bar, not by setting more difficult questions but simply by raising the boundary mark for particular grades."
The end of grade inflation is likely to be welcomed by education secretary Michael Gove, who this week said that students have been left "under attack as a debilitating debate took place every year about the real value of their qualifications".
Contrary to reports earlier this week, the Ofqual system of pegging exam grades to previous years' performance is not new. It was first used in 2002 and has been formalised since 2010.
Exam board insiders admit that it is not perfect and may downplay improvements in teaching quality. But they stress that the system looks at overall patterns of results and would never result in an individual candidate's grade being predetermined.
Ofqual insisted this week that it did not "fix" grades. "Our job is to make sure that grades are right, and that what is required for each grade stays steady," a spokesman said.
Elsewhere the results showed that boys have overtaken girls at A* grade, but that girls are still the top performers when A grades are taken into account.
The revival in the uptake of science, maths and technology subjects continued, although the percentage increases in entries for maths, further maths, biology, chemistry and physics may have started to level off. But the take-up of modern foreign languages continued to drop, with falls in entries for French, German and Spanish of 5.2, 7.6 and 3.4 per cent respectively.
England has taken over as the best performing home nation, with 8 per cent of entries gaining A* grades. Northern Ireland relinquished top spot as its A* grades dropped for the second year running, to 7.7 per cent. Wales remains bottom with a fall from 6.3 per cent to 6.0 per cent.
A DIFFERENT STORY
A-level results for 2012 (2011 figures in brackets)
- 26.6% (27.0%) of A-level entries achieved an A or A* grade
- 7.9% (8.2%) of entries achieved an A* grade
- 98% (97.8%) of entries achieved an E grade or better
- Top grades last fell in 1991, when the percentage achieving A dropped from 12 to 11.9 per cent
- Girls had a higher pass rate 98.4% (98.3%) than boys 97.5% (97.3%).
Original headline: A levels are in - and top grades fall for the first time in 21 years