How has returning to exams affected students’ results in the UK and internationally?

Last summer we looked at how the distribution of A level grades awarded in the UK in 2021 compared to those awarded in 2019 and 2020. In 2020 and 2021, exams were cancelled due to the pandemic and grades were based on other forms of assessment.

In 2021, the use of teacher-assessed grades based on a range of evidence, such as coursework, past exam papers and continuous assessment, led to an increase in the proportion of entries awarded top grades compared to 2019, when exams last went ahead. There was also a slight increase compared to 2020.

A similar trend of higher grades was seen for other qualifications for which exams were cancelled, including the French Baccalauréat and the Italian Esame di Stato, as well as the Irish Leaving Certificate for which exams were cancelled in 2020 and optional in 2021.

With a return to exams in the majority of countries this year, have grades also started to revert back to pre-pandemic patterns?

Fewer top grades awarded

The proportion of A level entries awarded the highest grade of A* fell this year, but remained higher than before the pandemic.

A similar pattern was seen in results for the Baccalauréat and the Esame di Stato. In all three cases, the percentage of top grades was similar to the lower of the previous two years, but did not return to 2019 levels.

Sources: Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ); Direction de’l’évaluation, de la prospective et de la performance (DEPP); Ministero dell’Istruzione

A levels: finding a mid-point

For UK A levels, it was announced that grading would return to pre-pandemic standards over two years, with grades awarded in 2022 representing a mid-point between those awarded in 2019 and 2021.

A framework known as ‘comparable outcomes’ ensures that grade distributions are fairly consistent from year-to-year. Unlike pure norm referencing, the process allows for differences between cohorts. However, due to this approach, A level grade distributions remained stable between 2010 and 2019.

This approach was not applied to grades in 2020 and 2021.

In 2020, centre-assessed grades submitted by schools were initially adjusted through a standardisation process. However, after the algorithm used was judged to be unfair, students were awarded the grades submitted by their schools if they were higher than their standardised grades. The process was adapted in 2021 so grades would be based on teacher judgement, drawing upon a range of evidence, without any statistical standardisation being applied.

In addition, grades based on teacher assessment, which reflect student performance in a variety of tasks over a period of time, typically tend to be higher than those achieved in external exams.

As a result, a higher proportion of top grades were awarded in 2020 and 2021 compared to previous years.

The approach to grading in 2022 aims to find a balance between returning to pre-pandemic standards and considering the continued disruption to students’ education.

A level results

As expected, the proportion of entries awarded the top grades this year is lower than in 2020 and 2021, but higher than in 2019.

36.2% of entries received an A* or A grade, compared to 44.8% in 2021 and 38.1% in 2020. Around a quarter of entries received an A* or A grade in 2019.

There was also a small decrease in the percentage of entries awarded grades A*-C from 88.5% in 2021 and 87.5% in 2020 to 82.6% this year.

Source: Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ)

France: Baccalauréat results

Although 2022 saw a return to exams in France, assessment for the Baccalauréat in 2022 was not the same as in 2019, due to reforms introduced from 2020 onwards. As the last two years were disrupted by the pandemic, it was the first year the reformed Baccalauréat was assessed as planned. Following the changes continuous assessment makes up 40% of the final grade and a reduced number of final exams make up 60%.

This year the overall pass rate for the Baccalauréat was 91.1%, lower than last year (93.8%), but higher than 2019 (89.2%). This year 58.8% of students achieved a mention, compared to 64.2% in 2021, 63.5% in 2020 and 47% in 2019.

Source: Direction de’l’évaluation, de la prospective et de la performance (DEPP)

Italy: Esame di Stato results

Written exams also returned for the Esame di Stato this year following two years of grades based on an oral exam and continuous assessment. However, in 2022, 25% of the final grade is based on written exams, 25% on the oral exam and 50% on continuous assessment. This compares to 45% written exams, 35% oral exam and 20% continuous assessment pre-pandemic.

The proportion of students achieving grades of 91 and above fell compared to 2021 to around the same as 2020, but remained much higher than 2019.

Source: Ministero dell’Istruzione

Ireland: Leaving Certificate results

Results for the Leaving Certificate in Ireland will be released on 2nd September as they have been delayed due to measures put in place to mitigate for disruption caused by COVID-19. The measures include an extra exam session and adjustments to grading.

The State Examinations Commission (SEC) has confirmed that results this year will not be lower than last year, therefore it is expected that the distribution of grades will be similar to 2021.

Grades were higher for the Leaving Certificate in 2020 and 2021 compared to previous years. At higher level, 10.3% and 15.2% of entries received the top grade of H1 in 2020 and 2021 respectively, compared to 5.9% in 2019.

A return to normal?

In many countries, there have been adaptations to exams this year to reflect that this year’s cohort of students have experienced considerable disruption to their studies over the last three academic years. In many cases, approaches to grading also reflect that this is a period of transition.

COVID-19 resources

UK ENIC has published a range of resources covering the disruption to education during the pandemic with a focus on assessment at secondary level. Our reports are available on the Our Research page of the Ecctis website and the latest information can be found on our blog: Charting the impact of COVID-19 on UK admissions and recruitment.