- The biggest reforms to general qualifications in a generation are almost complete with the majority of todays results awarded for reformed A levels.
- Reformed A levels were awarded for the first time in 19 more subjects this summer (not counting A level maths), bringing the total number of reformed subjects to 44. The new A levels are linear qualifications, with refreshed content, but overall A levels have not been designed to be more demanding. Our focus has been to ensure that standards have been maintained for all qualifications awarded this summer.
- Overall results in England are slightly lower at grade A and above compared to last year (25.2% in 2019 compared with 26.2% in 2018). This is likely to reflect changes in the A level cohort and students subject choices. While the number of 18-year-olds taking A levels in England has decreased by around 0.3% this year, the overall 18-year-old cohort has decreased by just under 3%. This suggests that proportionally more 18-year-olds are taking A levels this year.
- Entries for reformed AS qualifications in England have dropped by over 50% compared to last summer. This makes it much more difficult to interpret any changes in year-on-year results.
- The variability in results within centres is generally similar to previous years. Even when there are no changes to qualifications, individual schools and colleges will see variation in their year-on-year results; this is normal.
Today (15 August 2019) we are publishing:
- a summary of this years results (below)
- an infographic about this years A level results
- a report on variability in school and college A level results, 2017 to 2019
- interactive analytics of variability in school and college A level results, A level outcomes in England and an interactive map of England showing A level results in different subjects by grade and county
You may also find it useful to read about how we regulate GCSEs, AS and A levels in England.
An historical perspective
The exam boards use the principle of comparable outcomes when awarding, as a way of ensuring that standards are maintained.
The principle of comparable outcomes is not new. It has always been used by exam boards, particularly when qualifications change. Its a principle that exam boards have followed for decades: that if the ability of the cohort of students is similar to previous years, they would expect results (outcomes) to be similar. This means that, in general, students who would have achieved a grade A in one year would achieve a grade A in another year.
Comparable outcomes is operationalised through a combination of statistical predictions and examiner judgement. Predictions give us a way to maintain standards and a mechanism to make sure exam boards standards are aligned, so that it is no easier to get a grade with one board than another. Predictions are not used in isolation though. Senior examiners review the work of students at the key grade boundaries to make sure it is appropriate for the grade. Where they judge that it is not, they can move the boundary to a mark where they are satisfied that the standard of work is appropriate. And, in smaller entry subjects, where the statistics are likely to be less reliable, exam boards rely more on examiner judgement.
Since 2010 we have required exam boards to report their results to us against predictions and to provide a rationale where they are not in line. Results in recent years have been relatively stable year-on-year (see infographic).
Setting standards in AS and A levels in 2019
As in previous years, the approach outlined above has been used for all AS and A levels in 2019 reformed and unreformed. It is particularly important at times of change, as it protects students from being disadvantaged because they are the first to sit new qualifications, when teachers do not have access to the same bank of resources and past papers. We have been clear since before students embarked on these new courses that the exam boards would use predictions to carry forward the standards to these new AS and A levels.
In the 2019 AS and A level awards, exam boards used predictions based on the students prior attainment at GCSE. And, as in previous years, senior examiners have reviewed students work in all awards. In some awards, the senior examiners recommended grade boundaries that deviated from those suggested by the statistical evidence. We have not intervened to ask any boards to change their grade boundaries for any of their awards this summer.
Reformed A level subjects in 2019
This summer, reformed A levels were awarded for the first time in 19 more subjects (not counting A level maths). This means that nearly all subjects are now reformed (there are a small number of language qualifications that will be first awarded in 2020).
The content of the new A levels has been refreshed and updated, with greater input from universities, and the assessment requirements have changed in some subjects (to reflect the content and associated changes in the proportion of non-exam assessment). The new A levels are linear qualifications, but overall A levels have not been designed to be more demanding.
We have been clear that exam boards would maintain standards from the legacy versions of the qualifications, so that, in general, students who would have achieved a grade A in previous years would achieve a grade A this year.
A level maths
In England, reformed A level maths was awarded to a full cohort of students for the first time this year. The outcomes in this qualification for students in England this year and last year are shown below.
Cumulative percentage outcomes in England for A level maths in 2018 and 2019
At a national level, there is a small reduction in overall achievement at grade A and above and a small increase in achievement at grades A* and E and above. This reflects changes in the aptitude of the cohort taking these qualifications.
Achievement at grades B, C and D has changed by a greater amount. These changes are likely to be a reflection of the small shifts in the aptitude of the cohort taking the qualification and significant changes to the structure of the qualification. In the legacy qualification students could re-sit units as many times as they wished and could complete more units than the minimum required in order to optimise their grades. This was an anomalous feature of the design of the previous qualification and is not a feature of the new linear qualifications.
We made UCAS aware of these outcomes, who passed details to higher education providers to help admissions officers understand the overall picture for A level maths results.
Reformed A level maths results in 2018
As part of our regular approach to maintaining standards, we monitor the setting of grade boundaries for every A level. We identified significant shifts in exam boards grade boundaries in reformed A level maths between 2018 and 2019. While some fluctuation in boundaries is not uncommon, we considered these particular changes to be more unusual.
Uniquely we decided that students should have the opportunity to take the new maths A level in 2018 after one year of teaching so, as usual, the brightest mathematicians could enter in year 12. We knew that this would make awarding in 2018 challenging, given the significant changes between the legacy and reformed specifications and the likely size and nature of the 2018 entry.
Our view is that the 2019 awards are sound. The much larger 2019 cohort (85,000) means we can be confident in the statistical predictions used to guide the awards. Exam boards senior examiners also had plenty of evidence of student performance across the range.
In contrast, fewer than 2,000 students took the qualification in 2018, mainly very able 17-year-olds many of whom went on to take further maths in 2019. Many of the students achieved the highest grades and the exam boards had little evidence of student performance at the lowest grades.
While the 2018 grade boundaries seemed appropriate at the time, given the difference between the 2018 and 2019 grade boundaries we asked the exam boards to look again at last years awards before publishing this years results. None of the exam boards believed there was compelling evidence to re-open its 2018 award.