Another Year of Grade Inflation?

9 August 2021

A new report looking at the possible outcomes of this year’s A-levels suggests that if grade inflation once again prevails the situation would be so grave that the only way the leading universities will be able to pick the right candidates is to start setting their own tests again for applicants.

The report, A-Levels 2021, Another Year of Grade Inflation? by Professor Alan Smithers, Director of the University of Buckingham Centre for Education and Employment Research, also reveals that allowing teachers to set grades for a second year will have strengthened the hand of those teachers, unions and educationalists who want to do away with exams, and the government should brace itself for a campaign.

Looking at the results over the lifetime of A-levels from 1951 to 2020 the report shows that for the first time ever that there was a 100% pass rate last year. There was also an extraordinary increase in A*/A grades from 25.5% in 2019 to 38.6% in 2020.

Prof Smithers says: “A bumper year for grades was justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered.” However, he warns: “The danger is that inflated grades, in other words, lower standards, will become the norm.”

The report also highlights that last year subjective subjects such as performing/expressive arts, drama and media/film/tv studies saw the highest grade inflation, while exams such as maths requiring factual answers were the more constrained.

As more girls take arts subjects the swing to higher grades for girls may be more as a result of the subjects taken than any favouring of girls in teacher assessment.

Prof Smithers raises very serious concerns about what another year of inflated grades would mean for entry to university. He says: “It would be killing with kindness. Some of those admitted to university may find they can’t cope and others who should have got in will miss out on their first choice due to the over-marking of others.”

He adds: “Leading universities could be forced to set their own tests to help them distinguish between the many prospective students awarded straight As.”

The report suggests it is very likely there will be grade inflation again in 2021 as there is a view that “there has been more disruption to this year so the candidates should be treated even more sympathetically.”

However, reflecting on last year’s results Prof Smithers points out the irony of this approach to grading: “The least well-prepared sixth formers ever were awarded the highest ever grades.”

He also draws attention to the consistently better A-level results in Northern Ireland over the years and suggests that educationalists here should take a long, hard look at the different system in Northern Ireland to see why it is more successful than here and learn lessons from it.

Prof Smithers added: “Although teachers, parents and students are delighted with high grades, there are enormous dangers. If universities can’t distinguish sufficiently well between students they are likely to make many more mistakes.

“They are in danger of giving places to students who can’t cope and not to students who genuinely deserve a place. It could result in a terrible waste of time and money as students may drop out of courses. It is also hugely damaging for the careers and the wellbeing of students.

“It is absolutely vital that grade inflation is addressed and we return to normal grades next year if it hasn’t been possible in 2021.”


Professor Alan Smithers,
Centre for Education and Employment Research,
University of Buckingham,
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