Magazine article Times Higher Education

Grades and Gradients: When Tiny Shifts Upend the Admissions Horizon: Opinion

Magazine article Times Higher Education

Grades and Gradients: When Tiny Shifts Upend the Admissions Horizon: Opinion

Article excerpt

Managing enrolments becomes a tall order when universities must aim at the ABB threshold's moving target, says Mary Curnock Cook.

For the second year in a row, A-level grade deflation grabbed the headlines on results day. Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is a good thing, the small reported changes - the proportion achieving A or A fell by 0.3 percentage points - translate into significant impacts for those working in university admissions.

Apparently tiny percentage point drops in the grades achieved are magnified when applied across a portfolio of three A levels. Thus we can estimate that this year 5 per cent, or 2,000-3,000, fewer than expected school leavers have achieved A-level grades of ABB or better.

It might be easy for politicians and awarding body chiefs to brush this off, but the results could leave 30 or so higher education institutions with at least 100 fewer ABB+ recruits than expected. No wonder many of the top universities had vacancies for adjustment and clearing this summer. No wonder several universities will be softening their target entry tariff for 2013-14 - after all, it is not the potential of these students to succeed in higher education that has changed, only the grades they are starting with.

According to some national news reports, a shift towards "harder" subjects has caused the drop. This is somewhat puzzling. I thought the A level itself was supposed to be a common standard. Ah yes, I hear you say, but we all know that isn't really true. Surely mathematics is harder than psychology? The answer to such questions isn't straightforward. Many of the so-called "harder" subjects (mathematics, chemistry and so on) have always returned much higher proportions of A/A grades - for example, 43 per cent A/A for maths compared with 17 per cent A/A for psychology. A shift towards more students taking these "harder" subjects could not, therefore, produce the overall deflation effect that has been reported.

Confused? So am I. Not least because no one has ever done a decent analysis of the A-level data published by the Joint Council for Qualifications each year. Nor has there ever been a serious debate about why comparative standards produce such different outcomes across subjects.

And the gruesome tables of A-level results by subject published by the JCQ each year on results day have been set out in the same format for decades, despite significant changes to the patterns of entry over that period. They don't tell us how many people took A levels, nor the average number per student. …

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