Inflated A-level Grades Could Make Fair University Admissions ‘Difficult’

August 6, 2021 Updated: August 6, 2021

Even more top grades could be awarded to A-level students this summer than last year to compensate for the greater disruption to learning, it has been suggested.

There are warnings that “inflated grades” will become the new norm, making it more difficult for universities to “select accurately and fairly.”

It comes ahead of A-level results day next week when tens of thousands of school leavers will find out their grades after this summer’s exams were cancelled for the second year in a row because of the pandemic.

Teachers in England submitted their decisions on pupils’ grades after drawing on a range of evidence, including mock exams, coursework, and in-class assessments using questions by exam boards.

Students protested in 2020 over their A-level results
Students protested in 2020 over their A-level results in an undated photo. (PA)

Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research (CEER) at the University of Buckingham, said: “The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades, justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered.

“The danger is that the inflated grades, in other words, lower standards, will become the new norm.”

Last summer, the fiasco around grading led to thousands of A-level students having their results downgraded from school estimates by a controversial algorithm before Ofqual announced a U-turn.

The proportion of A-level entries awarded top grades surged to a record high after grades were allowed to be based on teachers’ assessments, if they were higher than the moderated grades they had received.

Ahead of A-level results day on Tuesday, Smithers warned: “The expansion of the A* and A grades means that a much wider range of abilities is bundled up in them, which makes it much more difficult for universities to select accurately and fairly.

“Some of those admitted may not be able to cope and will have wasted time and money, and some who are much more able will be missing out on when they could have done really well.

“Awarding higher grades in compensation for lost learning can be killing with kindness,” he added.

But a headteachers’ union said it is “unhelpful” to speculate on how the grades profile could look for this year’s A-levels.

Last year, 38.6 percent of UK entries were awarded an A or A* grades following the U-turn over grading, compared to 25.5 percent in 2019, according to statistics published by the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ).

Meanwhile, the proportion of entries in England, Wales, and Northern Ireland awarded the top A* grade in 2020 surged to 14.4 percent, compared to 7.8 percent the year before.

Smithers added: “While logically there is no reason why A-level standards should not be restored to what they were in 2019, my fear is that the various pressures will cause the government to allow what they became in 2020 to stand.

“At best, the grade pattern may fall somewhere between those of 2019 and 2020, but there are hints that there could be more top grades even than in 2020.”

He acknowledged that arguments for more sympathetic grading could be made for this cohort as they have faced “disruption in both years of their courses,” whereas the 2020 cohort suffered in only one.

Smithers added: “It could be argued that this year’s candidates will be competing for university places with the overspill from 2020, and reverting to the harder-edged 2019 grade pattern would leave them in danger of being squeezed out.”

“It is also the case that many parents and pupils are happy with the more plentiful A grades because it makes for more room at the top and improves their chance of a place at a top university,” he said.

But the report warns that further grade “inflation” makes it difficult for leading universities “to tell applicants apart with sufficient clarity.”

It comes after Ucas predicted that a record number of students are set to start university and college this autumn with applications and offers up.

Among UK 18-year-olds, the number of applications to higher education has increased by 12 percent and the number of offers is also up 10 percent.

Tom Middlehurst, curriculum and inspection specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “Speculation on how the grades profile is going to look for this year’s A-levels is both unhelpful and futile just a few days before the actual results are announced.

“The chief regulator of Ofqual has already warned a higher grades profile should be expected due to the nature of assessments this summer.

“If that is the case when results are announced next week, it would be a reflection of the system devised by the government and Ofqual and not of the work of senior leaders and teachers, who have responded appropriately and professionally in interpreting and implementing the guidance they have received.”

A Department for Education (DfE) spokeswoman said: “Speculation like this is unfair on the thousands of students who have worked incredibly hard over what has been a very challenging 18 months due to the pandemic—and who next week will be walking away with high quality qualifications that will take them on to the next stage of their lives.

“Exams are the best form of assessment but in the absence of those this year, there is no one better placed to judge young people’s abilities than their teachers, who see them day-in-day-out.

“Teachers have assessed multiple pieces of work, in turn giving students multiple opportunities to show what they know and can do.

“As in previous years, the government has been working closely with universities ahead of results day to ensure as many students as possible can progress if they get the grades they need.”

By Eleanor Busby