The examination board AQA created a furore this week when they announced a new “super grade” for GCSE examinations; an “A* with distinction”. The grade is initially only due to be introduced in the subject of further maths, but experts have argued that it might quickly pave the way for new super grades in other subjects too, creating an “impossible standard” and leaving even A* students feeling like failures.
“Follow My Leader”
Buckingham University education expert Professor Smithers pointed out that in the field of education standards one subject is likely to quickly follow another, saying “I am quite sure that young people not taking further maths might want to get an A* with distinction, so it could start a trend”. He warned that the introduction of this “super grade” across the board could have the ironic and damaging effect of “turning the A* into a kind of failure”, as even extremely highly achieving students could be left feeling disappointed if they did not achieve the highest possible mark.
However, a spokesperson for AQA defended the new grade by pointing out that the further maths qualification is distinct from other GCSEs. She stressed that it was subject to “totally different rules” and that there were no plans to introduce the same system for any other GCSE or A Level examinations. But as university admissions procedures become tougher and competition for places rises year after year, there are fears that these sorts of elite “super grades” could be introduced to help top universities like Oxford and Cambridge hand pick the brightest students from thousands of high-achieving candidates.
However, it might be strongly argued that by selecting only those students who achieve almost 100% in their examinations, elite universities risk recruiting a bright but blinkered group of students whose ability to learn ‘parrot fashion’ and jump through exam hoops may outweigh their academic flair or capacity for individual inspiration. It is often claimed that the students who perform very highly in examinations are actually less original and brilliant than those who take more risks, think outside the box, and still achieve respectable A grades. However perhaps these will no longer be enough to guarantee university entry.
Another concern is that the introduction of extremely demanding elite grades may create further discrimination against pupils from state schools in an already biased system. It is well documented that private school students are better drilled to satisfy the specific assessment objectives of the various examination papers, giving them an extra advantage in a system that places a huge amount of importance on jumping through academic hoops. Bright state school students, on the other hand, are often penalised for a lack of familiarity with the style and format of the exam, even if their intelligence and ability is actually very high. Historically the most elite UK universities have claimed that their rigorous interview process allows them to identify and make allowances for such pupils, but there is a risk that even this concession may be lost if they begin to rely too heavily on constricting elite “super grades” in their selection criteria.