No more A-level moaning: grade students on a curve

Aug 20, 2010
Jonn Elledge

Jonn Elledge: It’s time to use A-levels as they were intended – to rank students against their peers

The kids have hyperventilated, the columnists have harrumphed, and the broadsheets have run out of excuses for publishing wall-to-wall pictures of 18-year-old blondes. Yes, A-level results day is over for another year, and those of us who took our exams well over a decade ago can stop feeling inexplicably nervous.

This annual ritual always strikes me as horribly, achingly cruel. Not the parade of attractive, high-flying twins - 10 grade As between them, no doubt; now off to New Hall to read Land Economy – beloved of the media. What offends me is the annual arguments about falling standards.

Somewhere out there this morning there are several thousand grief-stricken kids, who missed the grades they needed for university, and will now have to re-think what they're going to do with their lives. And they'll be confronted with an endless parade of newspaper columnists telling them that the exams they've just flunked have all become pathetically easy anyway. It's nothing sort of sadism.

I don't know whether exams have got easier. There are plenty of explanations for the rise in grades that don't require ministers to have actively fiddled the figures. But it is clear that, as grades have risen, A-levels are becoming less useful as a measure of academic achievement. The new A* grade may solve this problem for a while. But what happens in 10 years time? Or 20? Will there come a point where the standard university requirement will be three A***s, and a B in general studies?

So here's an idea: let's go back to the old system, and grade students on a curve. A set proportion - the top 10 per cent, say - would get an A. The next group down would get a B, and so on, until the unfortunate group at the bottom failed. If you're worried about unfairness to those who fall just short of a grade, you can take it further, releasing details of exactly which percentile students were in.

That way, universities would find it much easier to pick the best candidates. You wouldn't really be able to compare the results of two students 10 years apart, of course. But the ongoing row about grade inflation renders the current regime useless on that score anyway.

There is a risk, of course, that this system seems just a tad un-egalitarian. Education, after all, isn't a zero sum game. Is your achievement really worth any less, just because others did well, too?

Perhaps not. But to fret about such things is to ignore the whole purpose of these exams.

A-levels were created to perform a very specific role, of helping potential tutors and employers tell 18-year-olds apart. Your grades never really matter again after your 19th birthday.

Given all that, any system that churns out ever growing numbers of top grades simply isn't doing its job. That's not to say that standards have fallen – it's just a recognition of what A-levels are for.

As a society, we are never going to believe a thing these exams tell us about educational standards. So let's stop pretending otherwise, and use A-levels purely as a way of ranking students against their peers.

That way, we can stop having the same tedious arguments every August. And we can stop telling those kids that their grades count for less than their parents'.

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