The A level conundrum: should record results and A* grades be a cause for celebration or concern?

Thousands of students across the country are celebrating this week as A level results reached an all-time high, with a record pass rate of 97.6%, and one in twelve results achieving the new A* grade. Yet newspapers and websites nationwide have focused on the doom and gloom faced by up to 200,000 students who will fail to be accepted onto a university course for this September.

So how can we justify the contradiction of record success with unprecedented disappointment? Have the new A* grades carried out their intended role? And just who are they really benefiting anyway?

The new A* grade was intended to allow the most gifted students to demonstrate their ability to perform highly within the A grade boundary, whilst not disadvantaging candidates at lower levels. Essentially, it aimed to differentiate further amongst the highest achieving students without making it harder for other students to achieve more average grades. So instead of simply increasing the grade boundaries or percentages required to attain a particular grade, they simply highlight those students who achieve an outstanding 90% in their papers in the second year of the course.

Yet as the debate rages over university places and clearing scrambles, it has emerged that of the universities, whose difficult admissions choices the A* was supposed to ease, only a paltry 12 have adopted it into their selection process at all. Even highly respected institutions like Oxford University, who are selecting the crème de la crème of students of the very highest academic calibre have shunned the A*, claiming it will not feature in their admissions in the years to come.

The other demographic who were supposed to benefit from the introduction of the A* grade boundary were the students themselves, the very brightest of the bunch who would be stretched and challenged and given the opportunity to demonstrate the depth of their knowledge and argumentative ability. So far so good, but what Andrew Hall, Chief Executive of exam board AQA described as “some more complex questions that enabled the really, really strong students to show how much stronger they could perform within the A grade” has in fact resulted in disappointment and a feeling of emptiness for those students achieving a good old-fashioned A grade.

Despite not achieving any less highly than an A grade student from previous years, Sophie, a sixth form student celebrating three A grades says “somehow it doesn’t feel like such an achievement now they’ve added an extra boundary. I have the same marks as a friend from last year who was celebrating the top possible grades with three As, but somehow now the A* has been introduced my results feel a bit flat.”

In addition to denting the morale of some A grade students, the A* has raised fears over the quality and type of education required to obtain them. Martin Stephen, the high master of St Paul’s School has criticised it as “an outrage and a disgrace”, claiming that “it will destroy creativity, imagination and independent thought because people will be terrified of dropping a mark.”
Perhaps as our students achieve more and more highly, it is not the exams or grade boundaries we should turn our attention to, but the attitude of our entire education system towards examinations and achievement. As Stephen suggests, one very plausible reason for the ever-improving results is not an improvement in standards or intelligence, but an increasing obsession with grades and jumping through the hoops of exam assessment objectives in our school system.

Perhaps more worrying still is the argument that the introduction of the A* is likely to have a negative impact on students from a state school background. The fear is that as universities come to depend on the A* as a means of selecting the top academic students, they will rely less on the time-consuming, well-rounded interview process that often gives students from a less privileged background the opportunity to shine.

As we become more and more obsessed with top examination marks, we risk turning our backs on those students who might not have been able to attend a school that can groom them to exam-board perfection, yet who might nonetheless display excellent potential and fantastic qualities of independent thought, argumentative ability and academic depth. Certainly the statistics support this concern, with students from independent schools claiming 30% of A*s though they make up only 14% of exam entries.
Certainly many A* students will take up places at top universities this year, and yes they will know exactly how to structure an essay and approach a question to hit each and every assessment objective appointed by the examination board. But does that mean that they have the ability to independently and imaginatively approach an argument in a fresh and exciting way? Does it provide them with the skills of debate, or the lateral and diverse thought processes that are required of a top class university student? Or are we simply flooding our universities with copycat drones drilled to perfection in the art of parrot-style repetition by acutely league-table conscious schools in an obsessively results-orientated society?
Year on year as the exam results are published and the furore about improving results and competition for places ensues, we focus on the minor details; quibbling over grade boundaries and types of question, examination procedure and marking regulations. Perhaps it is time to look at the bigger picture and consider some more radical changes to the entire system of education and the way we perceive and measure success.

Have you received A level results this year or taken up a university place? Do you think the exam system should be changed? And what do you think of the new A* grade? Let us know your views using the comment box below.