What goes up but never comes down?

This timeless childhood riddle is still circulating around school playgrounds, and the answer remains the same – your age.  A variant of this riddle appears every August amongst media commentators, who tut at what they term ‘grade inflation’ and question whether genuine educational attainment really is rising as quickly as increases in top ‘A’ Level grades suggest.

Some of the tutting is perhaps down to the erosive effects of grade inflation on prior achievement.  Just as a monetary inflation can devalue the £ in the bank, so modern day increases in ‘A’ Level grades can undermine the currency of historic results. 

Unlike the Secretary of State for Education, I can remember my ‘A’ Level grades.  In August 1988 I opened an envelope containing 3 results slips, printed on what felt like rice paper, and celebrated my AAC grades.  A third of a century ago AAC was a good result.  There were no A*s and only 11% of entries were graded A.  But in the words of the 1988 popular music hit by Yazz and the Plastic Population, “The Only Way is Up”, and today we have a combined A*-A percentage of nearly 45%.

The quadrupling of the top-grade percentage is quite an achievement.  Better teacher training, improved staff performance management, more effective pupil learning support, school inspections and greatly enhanced printed and digital resources have all contributed to improvements in teaching and learning. 

Increased amounts of continuous assessment and coursework have helped to raise the attainment of students who do less well in strictly timed examination conditions.

Changes in university admissions practices have also catalysed improvements in examination outcomes.  The old Oxford 2E offer did not focus students’ minds on the necessity of ‘A’ Level achievement in quite the same way as a 2021 three A* offer does.  Indeed, there is an element of chicken and egg in that grade inflation pushes up university offers which in turn makes students pull out all of the revision stops and study hard to meet their high offers.

Between 1963 and 1986 the ‘A’ Level grade distribution was fixed irrespective of student performance.  No matter what the quality of work produced only the top 10% of entries could be awarded the A grade.  Fixed grade quotas were unjust, especially as the bottom 10% always had to fail even when they produced some good work.  In 1987 examiners began awarding grades on a criterion basis, such that if a student produced a B grade answer they were awarded a B grade irrespective of the total number of Bs given.  Thus as student attainment rose with improvements in teaching and learning so did exam grades.  From 1987 students received the grades their work deserved and thankfully, this continues to be the case.

Fast forward thirty years and ‘A’ Level grades have gone up a lot.  The result is a very skewed grade distribution that now clusters around the top end.  In 2021 70.3% of the grades awarded were at A*, A or B levels, whilst only 11.5% of entries received one of the three lowest grades (D, E or U).  The Centre Assessed Grades (CAGs) of 2020 and Teacher Assessed Grades (TAGs) of 2021 were probably the least worst ways of assessing students in a pandemic and allowing them to progress but they have distorted the grade distribution.  As many commentators have said the grade genie is out of the bottle, and there is no easy way of recalibrating grade distributions that don’t either unfairly advantage or disadvantage students.  Any sudden return to the 2019 ‘A’ Level grade distribution would certainly be unfair on 2022 ‘A’ Level candidates who have already suffered two years of disrupted teaching and learning (compared to just 3 months of disruption for 2020 CAG candidates), and who may face a third year of disruption if Covid outbreaks flare up in still largely unvaccinated secondary school populations during the autumn and winter months.

So, what is the solution to the ‘A’ Level grade distribution challenge?  My least worst way forward is to learn from the past.  By 2009 rising ‘A’ Level attainment standards meant nearly 27% of entries were being graded A.  There was top grade congestion, and the A grade was no longer an effective differentiator for selective university courses.  The response was to divide the A grade in two, and create both A* and A grades.  From 2017 onwards, there was a rolling programme of grading reform for GCSEs in England which saw the top two letter grades A* and A become three top number grades 9, 8 and 7.  The time has come for ‘A’ Level grading to follow the GCSE example.  Numbers should replace letters such that new ‘A’ Level grades 9, 8 and 7 cover the old A*-A spectrum, the large B grade cohort (in recent years around a quarter of entries have been graded B) could be divided into two (6 and 5) with old C being a new 4, old D new 3, and E a new 2.

Of course, there is a lot of devil in the statistical and standards details of grade changes.  But just because it is difficult does not mean that we should not do it.  There may not be time to make the alterations for 2022, especially as schools and colleges will be issuing 2022 UCAS predicted grades shortly, in which case the 2022 grade distribution should reflect the 2020-2021 results achieved by other pandemic affected year groups.  But there should be time enough for a new ‘A’ Level number grading system to be in place for 2023.