Another level-A disaster

25 August 2021
Last year my view was that A-level grades may as well had been made up, but at least there was some — albiet abortive — effort to try and mitigate anomalies caused by the circumstances. This year the integrity of the whole system has been completely shot to pieces, and I have no doubt whatsoever that some people mindful of what happened previously have systematically gamed the system this year. And next year's intake will suffer the consequences.

The setup of assessment by teachers is a turkey-shoot for the type of schools that in the past did a lot of exam practice, and this is even before taking account of deliberately optimistic “predictions” that universities often accounted for in their offer modelling. During a school year with mass disruption it is simply not possible for such a large increase in top grades to be accounted for by an increase in performance, and with only about 1% of grades revised downwards in a situation where all sense of standardisation is out the window is too suspicious. Coursework has its place but continual assessment is generally associated with higher grades because retention of memory is not as critical as with exam-based assessment, and conversely some people do disproportionately better in exams so there are also cases of pessimistic predictions. Yes exams are high-stakes where someone can get completely ruined by a bad day, but they incentivise people to know their stuff in ways that coursework does not.

With all that aside, the country is now at the stage where top universities are going to have to treat the first year as a filter and be a lot stricter in who they give fail grades to, although I expect the goal will be to push students down a year rather than to get rid of then entirely. The big problem is rather than make the first-year a filter to weed out those who are not up to it, universities will instead just fill places with deferring and repeat-year students and take on fewer ‘new’ students. They are at least a known quantity and it is the path of least resistance for getting the tuition fees revenue. The overall effect of this will be candidates chasing a much smaller pool of available places, and this is going to make the competition even more vicious.