Provisional figures from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment show that almost two-thirds of this year's GCSE candidates gained grades A-C.
Grade A* has been awarded to 3.1 per cent of GCSE candidates, compared with 2.2 per cent when the star was introduced in 1994. A further 13.8 per cent gained unstarred grade A.
Among A-level students, the proportion gaining pass grades (A-E) has risen steadily from 87 per cent of entries in 1993 to 89.3 per cent this year. The jump in A grades at advanced level has been even bigger. The proportion of top grades has risen steadily from 14.5 per cent three years ago, to 15.9 per cent in 1994, 16.8 per cent last year and 17.8 per cent this time round.
This may be because students are concentrating on fewer subjects. In the past few years, the number of candidates has risen whereas subject entries have declined, especially this year; as a result, the number of entries per student has fallen from 2.2 to two.
Efforts to broaden sixth-form studies through advanced supplementary AS courses have met stubborn consumer resistance. The provisional figures show that Northern Ireland's sixth-formers are avoiding them.
Only 336 took the slim-line A-levels this year, compared with 365 in 1995, 431 the year before that, and 510 in 1993. By contrast, more than 10,000 sit normal A-levels. Although the number of entries picked up slightly, this is because candidates are taking an average of 1.3 AS subjects compared with one in previous years.
Either the calibre of students taking AS levels is lower or the standard of the examinations is higher. Whatever the explanation, only 80.6 per cent of AS students gained grades A-E, compared with 89.3 per cent for those sitting full A-levels.
CCEA now faces its own test - last year, its reputation was severely dented when 10,000 GCSE candidates received incorrect grades due to printing errors.
The council allowed schools to collect results on Wednesday from four regional centres, as well as supplying them electronically. They were also being delivered to schools in paper form yesterday. The council has also set up a helpline for those who want to query results. They can telephone 01232 381414 between 9am and 5pm until Friday August 23.