Today (17 December, 2020) is results day for the AS and A level autumn series (GCSE results days are in January and February). We understand how difficult life has been for students this year, and pay tribute to the resilience of those who took exams this autumn. We would also like to thank the schools, colleges and other centres who worked so hard to put on this exam series during a pandemic.
The autumn series this year was unusual. We put it in place as an exceptional arrangement to give students who were disappointed with their grade in the summer the opportunity to take an exam to try to improve their grade. The series also, importantly, gave those private candidates who were unable to get a grade in the summer the opportunity to take an exam. We previously published provisional entries for the autumn series that showed that, overall, entries were low, at around 20,000 for A level. This is a small proportion of the total A level entries in a typical summer series (700,000+).
To be as fair as we could be to students entering in the autumn series, we worked with exam boards to put in place arrangements such that the generosity from summer 2020 would be carried forward to these exams. Because the cohort was small and not necessarily representative of those that typically enter in a summer series, statistical evidence was of limited use and awarding therefore relied on examiner judgement, as is always the case for small entry awards.
Overall results for the autumn series for AS and A level have been published by JCQ. This includes a breakdown of results by subject. It is not possible to make meaningful comparisons between results this autumn and previous summer series because of the small and atypical nature of the cohort.
It is also not possible to make meaningful comparisons between results for different exam boards. As in any exam series, one exam board might have a very able entry for a subject and see far more students getting higher grades, while another exam board might have a much weaker entry and might see much lower overall results.
Most entries in the autumn series are from students that also have a grade from summer 2020 (87% for AS and 84% for A level). For these students, we have compared their grade from the summer with the grade they have achieved in the autumn.
As I outlined earlier this autumn, in a typical year, unfortunately not all students who re-sit their exams improve their grade. This year, the autumn series was not a typical re-sit series, since students did not take exams in the summer. We therefore cannot assume that every student will have improved their grade this autumn. Our analyses show that, of the students that have a grade from the summer, just under 50% have improved their A level grade, around 30% have the same grade, and just over 20% received a lower grade. For AS, just under 40% of students have improved their grade, around a quarter have the same grade, and just over a third achieved a lower grade.
For those students who have not improved their grade, they will still be able to use their grade from the summer. Our student guide aims to answer questions students might have about their GCSEs, AS and A levels.
Our aim in the autumn series was to carry forward the generosity from summer 2020 grades. This means that, in general, grade boundaries are lower than in summer 2019 (except where there has been a significant change to the demand of the papers).
Exam boards publish grade boundaries for the autumn, as they do in other series. But we would urge caution in assuming that these grade boundaries are an indication of what we will see in 2021. Entry numbers this autumn were relatively small, so exam boards had less evidence to inform the setting of grade boundaries than in a typical summer series. This is particularly the case at the lower grades and in subjects that usually have non-exam assessment, since the grade boundaries this autumn will only relate to the examined components.
We are also making other changes to the 2021 assessments that might affect the position of grade boundaries. For example, we will even out the differential increases in 2020 between subjects. And the advance notice of topic areas might affect the spread of marks on some papers, which could also affect the position of grade boundaries next summer.