Grade Inflation

Still too busy to post anything too substantial, but since this year’s A-level results are out next week – with the consequent scramble for University places – I thought I’d take a few minutes to share this  graph (taken from an article on the BBC website) which shows the steady dumbing-down improvement of educational standards student performance over the last few decades.

Nowadays, on average, about 27 per cent of students taking an A-level get a grade A. When I took mine (in 1981, if you must ask) the fraction getting an A was about 9%. It’s scary to think that I belong to a generation that must be so much less intelligent than the current one. Or could it be – dare I say it? – that A-level examinations might be getting easier?

Looking at the graph makes it clear that something happened around the mid-1980s that initiated an almost linear growth in the percentage of A-grades. I don’t know what will happen when the results come out next week, but it’s a reasonably safe bet that the trend will continue.

I can’t speak for other subjects, but there’s no question whatsoever that the level of achievement needed to get an A-grade in mathematics is much lower now than it was in the past. This has been proven over and over again. A few years ago, an article in the Times Higher discussed the evidence, including an analysis of the performance of new students on a diagnostic mathematics test they had to take on entering University.  The same test, covering basic algebra, trigonometry and calculus, had been administered every year so provided a good diagnostic of real mathematical ability that could be compared with the A-level grades achieved by the students.  They found, among other things, that students entering university with a grade B in mathematics in 1999 performed at about the same level as students in 1991 who had failed mathematics A-level.

The steadily decreasing level of mathematical training students receive in schools poses great problems not only for mathematics courses, but also for subjects like physics. We have to devote so much more time on the physics equivalent of “basic training” that we struggle to cover all the physics we should be covering in a degree program. Thus the dumbing down of A-levels leads to pressure to dumb down degrees too.

That brings me to the prospect of huge cuts – up to 35% if the stories are true – in government funding for universities, leading to pressure to shorten the traditional three-year Bachelors degree to one that takes only two years to complete. If this goes ahead it won’t be long before a student can get a degree by achieving the same level of knowledge as would have been displayed by an A-level student 30 years ago. Are we supposed to call this progress?

Or perhaps this business about two year degrees all really  does make sense. Maybe we should just accept that universities have to offer such courses because the school system has become broken beyond repair over the last 30 years, and it will be up to certain Higher Education institutions from now on to do the job that school sixth-forms used to do, i.e. teach A-levels.

42 Responses to “Grade Inflation”

  1. In the BBC article on this topic (, they have the following comment about the change in the mid-80s:

    “Since the mid 1980s, when examiners stopped awarding A grades to a set percentage of candidates (about 9%), the proportion getting the top grade has risen steadily.”

    Does anyone know the background to this and what happened to prompt a change in the approach to grading? Assigning a fixed fraction to each grade seems an overly harsh, if effective, means of quality control.

    • telescoper Says:

      The switch in 1982 was to “criterion-referenced assessment” where students are assessed according to specified goals. Not a bad idea, but the goals in science subjects were made rather trivial. Students get an A-grade in mathematics nowadays if they can solve in an examination situation a problem that is essentially the same as ones they have practiced in class and which the paper leads them through step by step. There’s no teaching or assessment of genuine problem-solving any longer. It’s like selecting athletes for the Olympic High Jump competition based on how many times they can jump over a bar set at 1m.

      I’d say it was better just to give the students position in an ordered list of all those who set the exam, i.e. a percentile.

    • telescoper Says:

      ps. Thanks for reminding I forgot to link to the original story!

  2. The problem of grade inflation is twofold. The fact it is happening is worrying. The fact that this isn’t generally being acknowledged by the educational establishment is even more troubling IMO. As a physicist, I’m trained to assess the evidence before drawing a conclusion, regardless of whether that conclusion fits my prejudice or expectation. Much of the field of education does not appear (when it concerns public examinations) to adhere to such basic scientific principles. There is ample evidence, particularly in mathematics, that standards have fallen substantially over the past twenty years.

    I once met an examiner for a major examination board. I asked him about the fall in standards in physics and mathematics and he told me that it had been proven that standards had been maintained. He sent me the “proof” which was a paper written by educationalists who had looked at old papers and declared that all was ok. There was no real description of their methodology or the criteria they used to draw their conclusions, rendering the whole exercise scientifically worthless IMO.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’m going to do an experiment. I’m going to take the A-level maths and physics papers I sat in 1981 and give them to current undergraduate students. I bet even the third-years will struggle.

  3. Do these percentages take into account any increase there may have been in the proportion of students taking less traditional, academic subjects?

    • telescoper Says:

      I believe the number is just the fraction of all A-level attempts that get an A grade, so the percentage is across all subjects available at the given time (which will be different in 2010 than in 1980). The fraction of students taking mathematics that get an A-grade is higher than this average, and is currently well over 40%.

  4. The reason it is being ignored is because whenever it is brought up for discussion, it is veteod in the media with cries of ‘you are undermining the achievements, and disparaging the efforts, of all these young people!’ from various sectors.

    Rather like how ‘You’re not supporting the troops!’ shut(s) down any discussion in American politics of whether or not a certain war was sensible to start or justified in continuing.

    • There are also vested interests to protect. The teachers want to claim their part of the “success”, as does the government. Opposition politicians are wary of offending the (voting) parents who want to believe that they have spawned a master race. Universities have long learned how to dance to whatever tune the government is playing so they tend not to say anything. However, to be fair to the current government, they did grumble a little bit about standards when in opposition. It will be interesting to see what (if anything) they actually do about now they’re finally in power.

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Brendan: Very clearly you pseak of two situations that are not analogous. The troops are doing what they were trained for fairly well but simply shouldn’t be there, whereas the teaching profession is not teaching well. Teachers are complicit in refusal to stream within a school (which is common in comprehensive schools, although not universal) and in the removal of disciplinary sanctions that pupils fear (which are the only deterrent to the minority of pupils who are class-wreckers) – and above all in the introduction of methods of teaching that don’t work, eg non-phonic methods in basic English, and ‘pupil-centred learning’ techniques.

      Teachers are indoctrinated in this nonsense in teacher training establishments and degrees. Nowadays you must spend one year – and you can spend three years – getting a degree in ‘education’ rather than in the subject you teach. (A ‘degree in education’ is as stupid a phrase as a ‘war on terror’.) I am confident that anybody can teach who is highly motivated to (this in itself weeds out almost all who would be poor teachers), who knows the material well, and who can keep discipline. Such people will already have seen how to taech and how not to teach during their own education and can use that knoweldge.

      The solution is to close down, forever, all teacher training colleges and education degrees. They are part of the problem – and a big part. They are largely staffed by people who believe that ‘all men are equal’ and will regard this as proven once everybody gets 100% in every exam, which is their asymptote. They take in many potentially good teachers but wrteck them by filling their minds with pernicious rubbish about how to teach. Our children deserve better. Replace these institutions with a mentoring scheme by which good teachers spend 1/3 of their time in classrooms with new teachers. (It would, incidentally, be much cheaper, although that is not my primary concern.)

      Finally, education is free at the point of use and is held in contempt today among many parents, whereas in Africa it is not free and people will work their guts out to get their children a better education than they themselves had. So let’s have a debate about whether education should be voluntary. For the Ayes, I propose that it would cause parents to wnat to send their children to school and thereby increase respect for the system. Nobody today is giong to send their children up chimneys as sweeps, which is what school was made compulsory to prevent.


    • Anton – I pretty much agree with most of you’ve written. However, I think new teachers should receive some type of formal instruction in education theory and practice, rather than undergoing 100% on-the-job mentoring. However, the lecture-based learning ought to be a small component of a teacher’s training, be based on proven techniques, and be delivered by an experienced teacher rather than a researcher in “education”.

  5. For some, grade inflation (or “exam success”) is a welcome way of allowing students from lower socioeconomic classes to get into top universities.

    Coming from a very working class area, I’m all in favour of bright students fulfilling their academic potential regardless of their background. However, lowering the bar isn’t the way to achieve this. I went to one of the worst schools in the North of England – my A-level maths teacher omitted 1/3 of the syllabus which I had to learn in the evenings in Wallsend library. However, I felt quite some satisfaction from sitting the same (tough) exam as someone at Eton and doing as well as anyone at that school.

    • telescoper Says:

      The urgent task is to improve school education, particularly ensuring that state schools have proper science teachers (not all of them do). If we can fix that problem then we can consider slimming down the number of higher and further education institutions that currently do nothing other than apply a sticking plaster when the problem lies very deep and needs more radical treatment.

  6. Steve Jones Says:

    I am saddened by this graph, but I do see it as just a result (maybe even a triumph) of the free market – set several exam boards up competing with each other for business and profit and they will tend to give the customer what they want ie. easier and cheaper exams.

    I think also the point should be made that there are ways to change exams that make them easier without reducing standards (although I do agree that has happened too) –

    – spitting up exams into ever more modules – single A level maths was 4 modules for my older brother and then 6 modules for me.

    – exams at the end of the lower 6th and also Christmas in the upper 6th allow you to sit an exam closer to when it was actually taught to you

    – resit exams – i had the opportunity to sit my pure maths 1 and 2 modules 3 times – at the end of the lower 6th and then Christmas and summer or upper 6th – the best score counts towards your A level.

    – and finally, helping students through a problem in a question by splitting it into several parts.

    all of these help a student perform better, but none of them would really show up in an analysis of changes in the syllabus from 1987 to 1997 (when I took mine) to 2007.

  7. telescoper Says:


    When I took my maths A-level there were no modules at all. The grade was based entirely on the final examination papers.

    Those of us working in the university system tend to focus on how difficult all this makes it to know what level of skills students actually have coming into university. There a culture shock for the students who suddenly find they’re only getting 50% on module exams when they’re used to getting over 90%, and they assume it’s the lecturers’ fault (which maye sometimes be the case, but not always).

    However I believe this all disadvantages students in more general ways too. I believe that one of the purposes of school education is for students to find out what they’re good at and what they’re not so good at. If courses are made so easy that everyone gets high marks it doesn’t do that at all.

    What I’m trying to say is that it’s good sometimes to have to face the reality that there are some things you just don’t do very well; then you can focus on developing skills in an area that suits your talents best. If you’re not really tested you can’t find out what you’re really capable of.

    Somewhat tangentially, this reminds me a bit of those awful auditions on shows like X-factor. People who clearly have no talent at all subject themselves to ritual humiliation simply because their friends and relatives haven’t had a quiet word and said to them “look, I’m sorry but you really can’t sing…”. It’s wrong to think that keeping quiet about someone’s failings is always the right thing to do. Sometimes the best thing a friend can do is give you constructive criticism. Of course there’s a right way and a wrong way to say such things…


  8. Steve Jones Says:

    Had you ever noticed a difference between students who have taken years off between school and university and those who have not?

    That has increased a lot over the period being discussed.

    If indeed A levels prepare students poorly then it can’t help if it has been 16 months since they looked at and integral sign or a cosine graph.

    • telescoper Says:


      I think that’s a good point. I am not sure of the exact figures, but I think the number of Physics students taking a year out is relatively small, however.


  9. “Brendan: Very clearly you pseak of two situations that are not analogous.”

    Anton, that’s hardly fair. I wasn’t comparing the two situations outside of the political response, where a sound-bite is brought out to stifle discussion, or at least steer it away. And at the same time implying poor things about the person bringing the problem to the table. See (e.g.) Chomsky for more.


    • Anton Garrett Says:

      I wouldn’t trust Chomsky on anything, but I wasn’t seeking to play dirty rhetorical tricks on you.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    Let me add, to my comment above (not in reply to anybody), that the Empire which officially espoused “all men are equal”, namely the Soviet Union, never went in for any of this twaddle in its schools, which were highly eliltist – and very good. I would dearly like to know how much of the modern Western teaching method is due to a Soviet subversion campaign, for the Soviet leadership certainly saw us as its enemy and were into subversion, and Lenin is said to have spoken of “useful idiots” in the West (although exhaustive searches indicate that he never wrote the phrase down).

    I do in fact accept that there is a sense in which all men (and women) are equal, but the propagandist gets value out of not specifying what that sense is.


    • Anton Garrett Says:

      Phillip: I largely agree with your second paragraph, although I have concerns that practical difficulty in defining “equal opportunity” is being exploited by politically correct people with agendas. I also trust that you would not be so illiberal as to outlaw private education.

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: We agree that it is regrettable that only the wealthy have access to private education. But I think it is a greater evil to tell people that they may not spend their money – hard-earned in today’s tax climate – on their own children’s education, simply because a State alternative is available. A State with that much arrogance is likely to bully other people in other ways; the man who made homeschooling illegal in Germany was Adolf Hitler.

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: It is most totalitarian to tell parents that they may not pay for their children to be educated privately just because a State alternative is available. Combine that with compulsory education and you have a State that can indoctrinate children at their most impressionable age. Horrible. And understood perfectly well by Hitler.

    As for immigrant integration: the best way to achieve that is for the indigeous population to show commitment to the principles that caused their country to be a more desirable place to live than that from which immigrants came. That is an organic principle, rather than a tacit totalitarian one.

    Would you make it illegal for a parent to pay for remedial tuition for his or her child?


    • telescoper Says:

      I don’t think home schooling should be illegal. I suspect some parents might seek to indoctrinate their children in much the same way as schools in a totalitarian system, but many more educate their kids at home because the schools available to them are so bad that it seems a good alternative. The downside of home education is that it isn’t easy for children to develop their social skills that way, but on the other hand they’re less likely to learn how to be bullies.

  13. Anton Garrett Says:

    Phillip: Children are born to their parents not to the State, and for that reason I believe parents have the right to instruct their children in any way they choose until the children are old enough to make their own choices.

    “Most children in many countries are state-educated, and they are not indoctrinated.”

    Not true. Read what children were taught about Stalin and Mao in the postwar Soviet Union and China. That is a large proportion of State-educated children worldwide.

    “Do you also support the right of Moslem immigrants to send their children to a Koran school rather than a regular school?”

    Let me first set the context for my reply. The State currently subsidises schools for certain faith groups, including Anglicans (the Established church) and Roman Catholics. I don’t think Islam is on the State’s list but I might be wrong. Although it is generally acknowledged that children get a better education at the Anglican and RC schools than in secular schools, I don’t approve of this subsidy (or of an Established church).

    So I don’t think that the State should subsidise Kor’anic schools. If, however, Muslims want to set up and pay in full for schools that teach the National (secular) Curriculum plus Islamic studies then they should be free to do so. However, what they teach should be realistically monitored for incitement to overthrow the State in view of sections 8 and 9 of the Qur’an.

    “Again, it’s more a symptom than a cause of a problem. In this case, however, I don’t think that the pupil should be made to suffer, since the reasons this might be necessary are manifold. However, I think that the state should pay for necessary remedial tuition if it is necessary. Again one must ask the question what happens to children whose parents can’t or won’t pay for remedial tuition?”

    I appreciate the disccussion but I can’t find in this an unambiguous answer to my question, which elicited it: Would you make it illegal for a parent to pay for remedial tuition for his or her child?


  14. Anton Garrett Says:

    What goes on in the USA, by the way? The public education system is lousy there too yet the country excels in science. It can’t all be due to privately educated people. Is it that degrees are of relatively low standard but PhDs are of good standard and take longer?

    Re the mess in the schools, there was a fascinating debate decades ago between two educational theorists of the Left, Antonio Gramsci (imprisoned by Mussolini) and Paolo Freire. Gramsci understood that teaching method, though it had evolved non-systematically, was largely correct in his time, and simply wanted the Left to take it up (as happened in Soviet schools), whereas Freire argued for the methods subsequently adopted in right-wing America. Ironic or what?

    There is of course more to pedagogy than a download from the teacher’s mind, via the blackboard, to the child’s mind. The child has to understand (as well as just know) the information, which means comprehend its interrelations with other items of knowledge. The Socratic method of asking questions remains vital to this process – that is what homework is. A fine book on teaching, shorn of educational psychological theory, is “The Art of Teaching” by the classicist Gilbert Highet.


    • telescoper Says:

      I’m not what percentage of US public school kids go to University, but I don’t think it’s very high. I have actually taught a few times in US University classes, and I’d say the first degree is of a lower level than ours to begin, with but accelerates rapidly. The real difference is at PhD level where the students do many more advanced classes than here, and usually take 5 years to get their doctorate instead of our nominally three-year PhD. I’d like to see that happen here, actually.

      Another factor is that top US colleges attract many extremely bright people from overseas; a very large fraction of the very best US scientists are actually immigrants. I suspect there’ll be an increasing number of British scientists moving there in the next few years too!

  15. telescoper Says:

    I think state support should be reserved for an entirely secular education system, but that doesn’t mean schools should not be allowed to provide religious education if they like as extras, i.e. not in the regular school hours and not paid for by the state. The state should not fund schools that wish to teach everything from a religious perspective; that goes as much for Christianity as it does for Islam. I don’t think such schools should be banned, but they should not be funded by the taxpayer.

  16. telescoper Says:

    There’s a post on this, followed by some interesting comments, in this week’s Guardian:

  17. […] As I predicted  last week, the A-level results announced on Thursday showed another increase in pass rates and in the number […]

  18. Anton Garrett Says:

    Dawkins? He is, primarily, a controversialist. His Selfish Gene book was written in such a way as to present an unbalanced view of the neo-Darwinian synthesis of natural selection and genetics, never actually coming out with the nonsensical statement that genes have volition but writing as if they did, and thereby causing a lot of confusion among non-professionals interested in the subject. Because he has a racy style he gained a public platform on biological sciences which he then abused by speaking about subjects on which he knows little more than anybody else, ie philosophy and religion.

    He has stated that people should not be permitted to bring up their children religious, but when challenged whether he would take children away from religious parents to prevent it he said he would stop short of that – although it is the only way to prevent it. It is time for him to state his views with no room for ambiguity. He is a purely negative thinker, repeatedly stating what should not be allowed but never saying what apparatus should be set up to attain a society running in his preferred way. Perhaps that is because such apparatus is every bit as totalitarian as the things he hates. No wonder he avoids debate. Plunder, jealousy and nationalism/racism are enduring reasons for wars and have nothing to do with religion. Neither are all religions the same, as Dawkins assumes, for their scriptures are incompatible.

    I think his best work is his popular advocacy and defence of evolution. This work has been spurred by fundamentalist Christians who do not understand that the six Yom/days of creation in Genesis can be six eras not 24-hour days (as in ‘the day of steam power’ – the Hebrew word has the same ambiguity), and that animals reproducing “after their own kind” (Genesis 1:14) refers only to the begettting of one generation by its predecessor and does not rule out speciation over a large number of generations.


  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    I agree with you about prostitution. However, making it legal gives rise to the spectre of the removal of unemployment benefits from women who decline job ads for prostitution.

  20. telescoper Says:

    I don’t think prostitution is illegal under UK law, actually.

  21. Anton Garrett Says:

    “As far as I know, before scientific evidence contrary to the biblical story, no-one advocated this interpretation.”

    Pre-science, people could have considered how conventional days could be spoken of prior to the appearance of the sun, whose presence or absence defines day and night. There are plenty of prophecies in the Bible that didn’t make sense prior to their fulfilment (Daniel was told to ‘seal up the scroll’ of his prophecies although the words were freely available), and it is not a big extension from prophetic to descriptive verses.

    ” the order in which things are created is wrong.”

    Please be specific, so that I do not waste time replying to something you did not have in mind.


  22. Anton Garrett Says:

    Unhappily, not many Christians understand the sequence of the six Yom/days of Genesis. Jews do a better job, because they can read it in the original Hebrew. The key is the second verse of the bible, of which the most famous English translation is “and the earth was without form, and void” but a better translation is “and the earth was unstructured and unpopulated”. This is not a disconnected poetic comment on the preceding verse (“God created the heaven and the earth”) but is the key to the six Yom that follow. The first three Yom induce structure by distinguishing, respectively, light from dark, sky from sea, and land from sea. The next three Yom fill the emptiness, populating the heavens with stars, the sky and sea with birds and fish, and the land with animals and humans.

    The populating of something obviously comes after that thing has been set up, so that in time ordering 4>1, 5>2, 6>3; but that is all the time-ordering we have, and how all six Yom interlace is not specified.


    • telescoper Says:


      Am I right in thinking that the use of the greek word “chaos” in the translation of “without form and void” is a non-standard interpretation? An old friend of mine once tried to convince me that Genesis was all about the creation of an ordered cosmos from chaos, rather than from nothing.


  23. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: the Genesis account does not state that the universe was created “from nothing” (a phrase which in Latin has become a slogan, Ex Nihilo). In my opinion this is because it would lead to a diversion about what is meant by ‘nothing’, which is not so clear when you consider that space has the attributes of dimension (ie, three unless you want to get into superstring theory), whereas real Nothing would not have even the concept of dimension.

    The Hebrew word translated as without form or structureless is pronounced TOHU. I’m not sure which English bible translations render it as ‘chaotic’; certainly none of the 15 listed at

    although the associated commentaries do. The translation into Greek of the Old Testament made about 2000 years ago, known as the Septuagint, does not use the word ‘chaos’ to translate TOHU.

    One reason I disagree with your friend is that God is stated throughout the Old Testament as having rights over the world through having created it; cf a playwright/author who has copyright and authority over what he has written (eg, he can alter it without anybody else’s permission) but somebody else needs the author’s permission to make changes.


    • telescoper Says:


      If I remember correctly, the idea of cosmos from chaos is associated with Gnosticism

      I’ve been writing a piece about nothing in connection with a book I’m trying to finish. I’ve come to the conclusion that nothing doesn’t exist.


  24. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: Here’s the Septuagint (‘LXX’), ie ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament, with modern English running parallel:

  25. Anton Garrett Says:

    The modern view is that Nothing is seething with zero-point energy and virtual particles, of course. And practitioners of homeopathy believe that Nothing acts faster than Anadin…

    • telescoper Says:

      It seems to me that Nothing is in a reciprocal arrangement with Infinity with regard to their mutual non-existence.

  26. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: I don’t do gnosticism. In regard to salvation it’s not what you know, it’s who you know…

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