Universities expand entrance exams amid inflated A level grade fears
5th August 2021

Universities expand entrance exams as Vice-Chancellors say pandemic A level grades are no longer objective – with study showing four in ten pupils are in line for top marks next week

  • With exams cancelled, pupils are given grades based on teachers’ assessments
  • A report today warns of even higher exam grade inflation this year than in 2020
  • University bosses say a ‘tsunami’ of top grades makes it ‘extraordinarily messy’
  • To straighten out the crowded field, top unis bringing in their own assessments 

Universities are expanding entrance exams after Vice-Chancellors claimed A level grades achieved during the Covid pandemic are no longer objective.

A study shows four in ten pupils are in line for top marks when results are dished out next week, with education bosses concerned about how they can identify the brightest students amongst a ‘tsunami’ of high grades.

With exams cancelled for the second year in a row, pupils are instead being given grades based on teachers’ assessments, and the Government has admitted some disruption will remain into the following term as well.

It comes amid warnings in a report that there could be even higher exam grade inflation this year than in 2020, which the pass rate reached 100% for the first time ever.  

In a bid to try and straighten out the crowded field, top universities are now bringing in their own assessments – a trend experts believe is set to continue in future years. 

A university source told the Telegraph: ‘It will be extraordinarily messy. 

‘It literally could be a tsunami of As and that puts the Russell Group in a very odd position: how do you disaggregate the best students?’

Universities are expanding entrance exams after Vice-Chancellors claimed A level grades achieved during the Covid pandemic are no longer objective

Entrance exams are already set for degrees including English, law, history and classics at Oxford.

The university has also rolled out the Thinking Skills Assessment, testing students’ problem solving and critical thinking, for subjects such as economics and human sciences.

Fierce rival Cambridge and some of the country’s top medical schools also run admissions tests, while Imperial College will make physics hopefuls sit an exam from next year. 

But senior figures told the Telegraph the assessments are likely to become more commonplace over the coming years as concerns grow over how credible A level grades actually are in this climate. 

The concerns come as a study claims the proportion of A and A* grades could reach a record high of almost 40% next week, with teachers likely to be ‘even more sympathetic’ than last year. 

The paper by Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at Buckingham University, comes ahead of A-level results day on Tuesday.

Pupils have had their entire two-year courses blighted by lockdowns, with teachers responsible for deciding grades after exams were cancelled. 

Professor Smithers said: ‘The early signs are that it will be another bumper year for grades, justified as compensation for all the disruption suffered. The danger is that the inflated grades, in other words, lower standards, will become the new norm.’

His report says the 2021 candidates have ‘encountered disruption in both years of their courses, whereas their predecessors had suffered in only one’, and therefore teachers may treat them ‘even more sympathetically’.

Last year, a record 38.6% of grades awarded were A and A* – the largest proportion in history. In 2019 it had been 25.5% and in the early 2000s it was 17%.

Professor Smithers said while it was ‘possible’ grading could become harsher again this year, he questioned whether it would be ‘politically acceptable’.

And he added: ‘The expansion of the A* and A grades means that a much wider range of abilities is bundled up in them, which makes it much more difficult for universities to select accurately and fairly.

‘Some of those admitted may not be able to cope and will have wasted time and money, and some who are much more able will be missing out’. 

He said the ‘paradox’ for results issued in the pandemic is that the ‘least well-prepared sixth-formers of all time have been awarded the highest grades ever’.

Pictured: A call being answered at The University of Sheffield’s Clearing call centre, an experience a number of students will go through in order to try and secure places

The report also suggested that grade inflation this year will be greatest in ‘subjective’ arts and humanities courses.

Last year the proportion of A* grades in performing arts, music and drama close to doubled compared with the previous year. Meanwhile, maths top grades only increased by 20%. 

He also said girls have benefited more from teacher assessment, with female candidates jumping even further ahead of males last year. A 0.1 percentage point gap in 2019 surged by 3.3 points last year.

Professor Smithers’ report ‘A-levels 2021: Another Year of Grade Inflation?’ draws on his lifetime’s research on exam performance. 

His data stretches back to 1965 and he’s written annual reports on his insights for the last decade.

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