Grade inflation

16 August 2009

It will not be long before it is that time of year where newspapers start complaining about GCSEs/A-Levels/Universities "getting easier". Although increased coursework and more scope for retakes make the system more forgiving to borderline candidates, I do not believe the content of A-levels is significantly easier than 10+ years ago. The rise in the proportion of passes and A-grades is primarily due to changing attitudes where you either go all-out, or you're already bust and don't bother at all. The individual issues are elaborated on below.

Expectation & motivation

In the late 1990s, unless you had your sights set on OxBridge or medicine, getting a fistful of A-grades was not really an expectation. My Bristol offer of ABB and Southampton offer of BBB were an increase on the typical offers advertised in the prospectuses when I was choosing my undergrad university; in other words you could get into a top-ten university without a single A grade.

Nowadays both Bristol and Southampton ask for AAA-AAB. With all top universities asking for multiple A's, people now have an AAA-or-bust mentality.

Withdrawal of weak candidates

At least within public schools, which account for about a quarter of A-level candidates, it is not unusual for candidates to drop subjects for which they are weak at. I suspect this is more for the benefit of school league tables rather than the candidates concerned, but regardless of reason such action causes a rise in average grades. This practice seems to have increased when A2's were introduced.

More scope for retakes

Although A-levels in the 1990s were available in modular form, there was significantly less scope for retakes. For instance a maths A-level consisted of 4 rather than 6 modules, and at least a third of the maths modules taken in the final sitting had to end up counting towards final results. There were mid-year exam sessions back then, but even in subjects that permitted non-summer exam sittings only a minority of components were available.

The overall effect of various policies meant that in practice final grades were heavily influenced by performance in the upper-sixth, a significant proportion being first-attempt. This was not that far in practice to what happened with the 'linear' exam system that was running parallel at the time.


At least for my A-level subjects, my school had a dislike for coursework. I suspect this was partly related to scepticism towards heavy homework loads apparent with some of my teachers; this is perhaps not too surprising since school was 8am-5pm, and this was in the era when Saturday had only recently stopped being a routine school day. Practical examinations were viewed as a better way of assessing ability rather than motivation.

In the past there was a headache auditing against excess collaboration, but such copying was generally limited to individual schools. If it was not then it usually involved one of a few sources such as Encyclopaedia Britannica that could realistically be spotted. Searching the internet was more of a manual skill back then, the effort and expense in cases comparable to going down to the local library and doing research properly. Nowadays getting someone to write coursework for you is a Google and credit card job, rather than an overly helpful relative.

I'm not convinced that increased continual assessment has contributed to a net increase in overall average grades, although there is certainly the potential for it to do so. I was sceptical of school coursework even before auditing for cheating became a major issue.