Introducing the A**

23 April 2017
According to the AQA, the current GCSE ‘A*’ to ‘G’ grades are being replaced with a numeric 9 to 1 range. What caught my eye was that “grade 9 is the highest grade, set above the current A* [grade]” — in other words it is an A** grade in all but name. I wrote about grade inflation back in 2009, and much of what I said back then still applies.

The problem is that GCSE grades are intended to be an approximately uniform scale between perfection and unmitigated fail, but this does not match the actual distribution of ability. One way or another all actual interest in grades is skewed towards the higher end of the spectrum, and while not quite as critical as A-levels, there are the same pressure for top grades to be a limited edition. I think part of this is harking back to an era when top grades were rare, but that was due to said era being when the long tail of poorer grades was simply lopped off. According to a BBC article, in approximation A* & A are to be expanded to 9-7, B & C expanded to 6-4, D mapped to a 3, and E-G compressed into 2-1. I've always been skeptical of league tables due to the extent they always get gamed, but the idea of having a standard pass (grades 4+) and strong pass (grades 5+) caught my attention. It is obviously trying to remove a cliff-edge effect from national statistics, which is probably a good thing overall.

Personally at GCSE level this is all unnecessary tinkering. While I do agree with streaming within schools, at GCSE level (exams taken at ages 15-16) I don't agree with fine-grained grading, because at this stage the real aim is providing a base education in a broad range of subjects. As far as I am concerned the way to distinguish between students at the top end is for them to go onto A-levels in the relevant subjects, because picking out the “best of the best” is really only appropriate when students have chosen to specialise on subjects that interest them.r The aggregate standards in Singapore, Japan, or South Korea may be enviable, but the resulting pressure from the best-or-bust mentality in those countries comes at a cost. All three have problems with school-age suicides.