Editorial: Northern Ireland sees necessary return to normal A-level results

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Morning View
News Letter editorial on Friday August 18 2023

​In 2010 the system for grading A-levels was changed in Northern Ireland and across the UK due to grade inflation.

​A relentless rise in the number of A grades had rendered the top category of results almost meaningless. The new system introduced an A* grade and an A grade. This ended up being roughly equivalent to an A and B grade under the categories that had existed for previous decades. In that first year, and for the next 10 years after it, the new system worked. The number of pupils achieving the A* and the A grade was roughly static.

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In fact the number of students getting the two top grades was 35.7% in 2010 and declined somewhat in the years after that, then fluctuating up and down a bit each year as you would expect in a system that was working properly, typically around 30%. This stability of grades meant that employers and universities could have faith in the system and distinguish between candidates. It ended the absurd notion that, year after year, final year pupils were mysteriously becoming more talented. Yet there had been a general reluctance to criticise grade inflation in case it seemed to be insulting the latest crop of students to get their A level grades.

However, the return to sound A level marking was upended by Covid lockdowns. The failure to hold exams in 2020 and 2021 saw the number of A* and A grades soar to 44%, then 51%. Last year it dropped back to 44%, still far ahead of the pre Covid years. This year A levels are almost back to normal, with 37.5% of NI pupils getting one of the top two grades. This is necessary. The last few years have exposed the idea of scrapping exams as unrealistic, and something that would lead to unreliable results. It might for example result in some pupils studying degrees for which they are ill suited. In the medium term that helps no-one, including such pupils themselves.