A-level results : when they were down, they were down……

After record results last year, when almost one in five (19.1%) grades were A*, A-level top grades were down to 1 in 7 this time around, while the proportion of candidates in England, Wales and Northern Ireland receiving A or A* has fallen from 44.8% last year to 36.4%. The number of ‘high-flyers’ who got three A*s has gone down, from 12,865 last year to 8,570. The figure for overall passes (A* to E) slipped by 1.1%.

Pass rates for Scottish pupils have also fallen significantly. This year’s results showed the overall pass rate for Highers, heavily used for students aiming for university, fell from 89.3% in 2020 to 78.9%.

After two years of higher average grades during the pandemic – when exams were cancelled and work was teacher-assessed –regulators have arranged for grades to be halfway between those in 2019 and 2021 and for a return to pre-pandemic levels by 2023. In otherwords grades will fall further.

Wanting to be seen as creating stability and maintaining public confidence in the exam system, the regulators have given plenty of prior warning, preparing students for an inevitable disappointment and explaining their actions should be seen as a ‘fair’, a necessary post-Covid measure, helping the education system to ‘get back to normal.’

But the reality is a continuation of an assessment system driven by numbers, averages and comparisons, rather than how students actually perform. This has traditionally been referred to as ‘normative’ assessment, where performance levels are predetermined in line with what standards ‘should be’. Though exam authorities will claim to the contrary, the current approach is not greatly different from the old ‘O’ level (and A-level) exams where a fixed percentage of grades were allocated in advance – only now, grade boundaries are decided after scripts have been marked.

By way of comparison, when GCSEs were originally introduced, they were designed to be criterion-referenced – in otherwords, grades reflected particular levels of what students really knew, could do and what they understood. They were designed to encourage greater levels of participation and indicate personal progress and develop individual confidence.  Regular assessment by teachers, now seen as a drag on the system, and blamed for ‘grade inflation’ was considered integral. Tory reforms have put an put an end to all this.

Of course, exams and tests have always played some kind of role in ranking and selecting students. Even the Finnish education system for example, which is often considered as something to emulate, has a part norm-referenced final exam. But now, ranking students against each other has become the main function of assessment. Whereas education has generally been considered to be what economists term a ‘merit’ good, something largely beneficial to society as a whole, in recent times it is becoming a ‘zero-sum’ good. Rather than concentrating on developing real learning skills, teachers have to spend increasing amounts of time coaching students in exam technique, to compete more effectively against others, producing a private return rather than a public benefit. One individual can only benefit at the expense of another.

Education can damage your health?

Worse still, there are negative implications for the welfare of society, with huge levels of stress and anxiety for young people, but also their teachers and their families, as they worry about which grades, they will attain and which university will accept them.  It’s reported that with record applications this year, up to 30,000 students might have missed out on higher education completely and face a pain staking few days negotiating ‘clearing’.   Meanwhile, at least one Russell university is providing cash incentives for students with high grades to defer.  

The current ‘high stakes’ system of education is becoming unsustainable.  A total rethink is required.

4 thoughts on “A-level results : when they were down, they were down……

  1. But where are all the front-page photos of Fruity Girls jumping up and down and hugging each other? There will be complaints from Torygraph readers!

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