Are A level exams getting easier?

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As passing rates for the A-level examinations have risen over the years, some have called into question whether the examinations or the grading criteria for the examinations has become easier, allowing the higher grades.  Patrick (1996), in a fifteen year study of A-level examination results, found that pass rates first began rising around the mid 1980s. 

Whilst there have not been large jumps from year to year, but rathersmall, sometimes almost imperceptible upward trends, the cumulativeeffect of increasing grades has over the years become apparent.  Thishas raised concerns regarding changing standards and grading criteria(Patrick 1996).  In addition, this trend is accompanied by an increasein the number of uptakes on the A-levels, as well as a restructuring ofthe exams themselves, further complicating the situation.

The examinations themselves have undergone several restructurings. Advanced Supplementary examinations were introduced in 1989, whichallowed students to be assessed on only one-half the A-level materialrather than material spanning the content of the whole two-year course(Bell, Malacova and Shannon 2003).  The Curriculum 2000 reforms allowedone year of A-level work to also be assessed separately, with theintroduction of the Advanced Subsidiary examinations (Bell, Malacovaand Shannon 2003).  “The idea behind this change was that studentswould take four or five Advanced Subsidiary examinations in the firstyear of the sixth-form and then choose the A-levels to be taken fromthese subjects” (Bell, Malacova and Shannon 2003, 2).  The Dfescontends that the new A levels offer greater flexibility and breath ofstudy for pupils with of the introduction of AS and A2.  Students nowhave the option to decide how many A levels they want to pursue fortheir particular career goals, academic plans, and interests andaptitudes (Dfes 2005).  The most recent addition has been the advancedawards (AEA), designed to provide additional challenge to the brighteststudents (Dfes 2005).  These awards are based on a paper requiringpupils to think more critically and broadly than required for theA-level examinations, and are a world-class qualification recognisedinternationally (Dfes 2005).
While there is not evidence of reduction in standards on the A-levelexaminations as far as exam contents or presentation is concerned,critics of the Government reforms contend that dividing the A-levelsinto a series of separate examinations makes them easier to pass (Dfes2005, Bell, Malacova and Shannon 2003).  The reasoning is that it ismuch simpler to pass an examination of only half the content than onewith the full content, a valid argument.   Another statistic used tosupport that the examinations are now graded higher is the increase inuptakes on the exams overall.   This represents increases in allsubjects except mathematics and applied maths (Mansell and Pickard2003, Gimble and Mansell 2004).

Changes in Exam Uptakes

2002    2003    2004
1.60%    3.57%    0.80%

(Gimble and Mansell 2004).

Theoretically, if the pool of candidates becomes larger, indicatingstudents engaged in post-16 work that would previously not be soengaged, the overall grades should fall.  However, this has not beenthe case.  As shown in the two tables below, grades over the past fouryears have continued a steady rise, despite exam restructuring andincreased uptakes.  In fact, the introduction of Curriculum 2000reforms have resulted in the overall A-level pass rate increasing to96%.(Dfes 2005).

Grade Distribution - All Exams               

% of candidates gaining grades;     2001    2002    2003    2004
A* to A               16.70%    17.40%
A* to C               58.10%    59.20%
A* to G     97.50%    97.50%    97.60%    97.60%



Grade/Year      2001    2002    2003    2004
A to B     37.90%    42.60%    44.50%    45.80%
A to C               67.50%    69.00%
A to E               95.40%    96.00%

(Mansell 2002, Mansell and Pickard 2003, Gimble and Mansell 2004).

Whilst the above numbers can be helpful in viewing the overalltrends of grade increase, the problem with trying to evaluate theincreasing passing rates based solely on statistics are threefold. First, to truly examine this phenomenon requires going back for astatistically significant period of time, certainly more than fouryears.  However, repeated changes to the examinations themselves,including introductions of the AS, A2, and AEA, result in an unevencomparison if going back to periods before such changes.  Therefore,one cannot make a direct comparison for a significant time period. Second, the test preparation materials available to students haschanged, giving them additional resources with which to “study for theexam” rather than requiring the previous overall understanding ofsubject matter required for successful examination results (Dfes 2005).

Third, minor changes to grading criteria have been made, again making long-term comparisons difficult.

For example, a change in grading criteria occurred in 2002.  Mr.Tomlinson, at the request of the Government, undertook a review of thegrading procedures used for the A-level examinations.  The results ofhis study were subsequently published in a white paper, withrecommendations for minor grading criteria adjustments.  The WhitePaper’s stated goal was to respond to issues raised in previousreports, particularly how the Government can fulfil the academic andcareer needs of every student (Dfes 2005a).  Whilst there were notsignificant changes as a result of the outcomes of this review of theA-levels, over 1900 students did have their grades changed to a highergrade in at least one A or AS level examination as a result of thechanges (Tomlinson 2002).

The Dfes contends that improved pass rates are due to betterperformance and more well-prepared students, better teaching andinstruction methods, and more accurate and clear information regardingtest preparation provided by the awarding bodies (Dfes 2005).  Inaddition, they note that the Qualifications and Curriculum Authorityhas a number of quality assurance mechanisms designed to ensureconsistent standards on the examinations, such as a rolling reviewprocess, investigation of grade standards across scripts, externalassessors in all subject areas, and annual reviews of examinationstatistics (Dfes 2005).

Although students are possibly better prepared for the examinationsnow than they were twenty years ago, they are likely better preparedbecause of a clearer picture of what exactly will be asked on theassessment, and how it will be asked.  As the percentage of studentstaking the examinations continue to rise, and grades rise alongside,the likely conclusion is the examinations are becoming easier to pass,whether their standards have declined or not.


Bell, J.F., Malacova, E. and Shannon, M. 2003.  The Changing Pattern ofA-level/AS uptake in England.  University of Cambridge LocalExaminations Syndicate, Paper presented at the British EducationalResearch Association Annual Conference, Edinburgh, September 2003, pp.1-16.
Dfes 2005.  A and AS Level Results.  Department for Education and Skills,, accessed 6 July 2005.
Dfes 2005a.  14-19 Education and Skills - White Paper.  Department forEducation and Skills,, accessed 6 July2005.
Gimble and Mansell, J. 2004.  Examinations Results 2004.  Joint Councilfor General Qualifications, October 2004,, acccessed 6 July2002.
Mansell, J. 2002.  Examinations Results 2002.  Joint Council forGeneral Qualifications, November 2002,, acccessed 6 July2002.
Mansell, J., Pickard, H. 2003.  Examinations Results 2003.  JointCouncil for General Qualifications, October 2003,,acccessed 6 July 2002.
Patrick, H. 1996.  Comparing Public Examination Standards over Time. University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate, Paper presentedat BERA conference, September 1996, pp. 1-13.
Tomlinson, M. 2002.  Report on Outcomes of Review of A-Level Grading. Department for Education and Skills, 14 October 2002,, accessed 6 July 2005.