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Grading Severity

The issue

There is concern that students' decisions about which subjects to take at A-level are influenced by the perception that it is more difficult to obtain a higher grade in the science subjects; this is exacerbated by the UCAS tariff, which awards the same points to all A-level subjects.

In July 2010, UCAS launched the Qualifications Information Review to understand the information needs of higher education institutions, and consider whether the Tariff provided a useful means of supporting fair access. A decision on retaining the Tariff is expected in autumn 2012.

Policy advice

There is the need for a transparent approach to the relative difficulties or grading severity of different subjects at A-level.  Research is required into the various options of achieving this transparency:

  • Make all subjects the same standard - Equate the standards of grades in different subjects to make them statistically comparable. In some instances this would result in subjects becoming too hard for candidates that currently take them or for others, too easy.
  • Change the way grades are used - Introduce a scaling system so that some grades are acknowledged to be worth more than others for certain purposes such as applying to university.


SCORE  commissioned researchers at the Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre (CEM), Durham University to investigate the grading severity of A-level examinations in different subjects. The research analysed 250,000 A-level results over five robust statistical methods and found that it is easier to achieve the top grades in subjects like Media Studies and Psychology than it is when taking subjects like Maths, Physics and Chemistry.

The full research report was published in July 2008 and questions the suitability of UCAS point-scoring system, which treats all subjects as equally difficult. The report also runs contrary to a report released by the then OCA (Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) in February 2008, the 'Inter-Subject Comparability Study', which stated that there are "no substantial or consistent differences in standards between any subjects at any level".  The report also reviewed existing work on comparability of subject examinations.