A-levels 2017: School leaders, are your results normal?

A-level results are out, and Ofqual has released its usual series of graphs showing the dips and rises in grades.

Each year on results day Ofqual also produces boring-sounding variability charts. It’s a dull name, but the data is important.

These charts show how many centres (i.e. schools or colleges) dropped or increased their results compared with the previous year. This helps school leaders see general trends across the country and get an early gauge of whether or not any department of theirs is going with or against the trend.


How the graphs work

DO NOT PANIC. These graphs look complicated, but they’re not.

Looking at the upper graph first (the one in green)

The line through the middle (0 on the bottom axis) represents no change in results for a school. Look at the bar slightly to the right of that central line. That bar is showing you how many schools got between a 0 and 2.5 per cent increase in their business studies A-level A grades this year. If you read across from the top of the bar, to the scale on the left-hand side, you can see the number of centres that had this sort of increase is around 16. The bar left of the central line shows that around 20 schools decreased their A/A* grade rate by between 0 and 0.25 percentage points.

Each of the bars represents a change in A/A* rate of 2.5 percentage points. The further you go away from the centre, the more schools have decreased or increased their A/A* rate. In order to find out how many decreased or increased by the amount on the bottom of the scale, you look at the number on the right.


In the example below, taken from business studies A-level, we can see that a few centres had big drops. If you look where it says -37.5, we can see a couple of schools had a decrease of around that amount. But many centres increased too. In fact, the highest bar, covering around 33 schools, was for a 2.5-to-five point increase.



Now look at the lower graph (in blue)

The blue graph shows how schools changed their results last year.

If the two graphs look roughly similar, then not much has changed.

We can see that the green graph is much more spread out than the blue one. This means more that this year, more centres will see a big shift in their A/A* grades for business studies A-level. As more of the green is right of the centre, we can expect that more will have had positive results, but we can see some schools are on the left, which means their results are negative

So, what can we tell from the variation charts this year?


Science results give us clues about the A-level reforms

The science results seem a little muted this year, with A*s particularly hard-hit in biology and not doing so well in chemistry.

Does this mean that everyone has been harmed by the newly reformed A-levels?

The picture we can see this year in biology is actually quite similar to last year’s: there haven’t been dramatic drops – it is more a tinkering at the edges.

In fact, around six lucky schools saw their A/A* results increase by more than 25%.

A couple of schools have been badly hit, with drops of over 37.5 points, but that was true last year too. It therefore seems like that the shift is to do with changes in the pupils, and not something about the reformed A-levels being harder.

Physics is interesting as there appears to be less of a spread in results this year than previously.

This is unexpected as it was felt a new specification would mean more schools saw their results go up and down as everyone got used to teaching the reformed A-levels.

The lack of pattern again suggests that variances in cohorts are having more of an effect than the reforms.

Maths tells us something about subject choices

Among AS-levels, the picture is very similar: there is almost no change anywhere.

But one strange thing did pop up in Maths AS-level; this time, check out the numbers in the top right-hand corner of the graph.

You will see the numbers of centres doing maths AS level have gone up dramatically. Looking at the entry rates, maths is one of the only AS-levels not to witness a huge collapse in figures this year. In fact, it has increased.

Why? The best guess is that maths is the only subject that has not yet been reformed, where it was still possible for a first-year pupil to take an AS and still have two years of exams count towards a final grade. My hunch is that this made it a very popular choice this year. Even better, that popularity does not mean weaker pupils took the course, as the results held up – with proportionately fewer U grades (albeit with slightly higher E grades).



Overall, what is the conclusion?

The exams watchdog Ofqual has done its job and grades are behaving much as they have in previous years.

This does not mean school leaders will not see big changes in results. In some subjects, a couple of schools are seeing A/A* grades in some subjects fluctuate by almost 50 points.

But this is normal; it is a product of how much more unstable A-level results always are due to cohort sizes, variation and staff turnover.



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