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How has COVID-19 affected students’ grades?

COMMENTARY   Many exams were disrupted this year due to COVID-19. In some countries, exams were cancelled, and students awarded grades based on other forms of assessment, such as teacher assessment. In others, exams were postponed and held once it was possible to put appropriate safety measures in place. The format of some exams was also adapted, for example, to allow for online assessment, or to reduce the number of exams. We’ve looked at some initial data to see what effect these changes have had on grading.

Further information on exam arrangements in over 50 countries can be found on the UK NARIC blog, Charting the impact of COVID-19 on UK admissions and recruitment.


Key points:

  • Overall, the impact varied. In some cases, grades were similar to previous years; in others there were clear differences

  • Where exams were cancelled and teacher assessment used instead, pass rates were generally higher

  • Many countries created extra places in higher education, presenting a challenge for institutions

  • The effects may go beyond this year with changes to admissions processes; for example, many colleges in the US are now ‘test-optional’.


Understanding grades in context

Understanding grades achieved in school qualifications is important for undergraduate admissions, so we have been looking at how disruption due to COVID-19 has affected grades this year. As statistics are released, we are analysing how grade distributions compare with previous years and the impact on admissions to higher education.

There are many factors that may have affected the grades awarded. For example, grades based on teacher assessment typically tend to be higher than those achieved in external exams. Teachers assess student performance in a wide variety of tasks over a long period of time, whereas an exam captures their performance on a given day, in response to a particular exam paper. Conversely, many students were out of school for a period this year, with variable access to online resources; is this reflected in lower grades compared to previous cohorts where exams went ahead?

Higher pass rates

In some countries, qualifications were awarded on the basis of school assessment, which would usually make up a smaller proportion of the final grade awarded. For example, the Netherlands also saw an increase in the pass rate this year, with all final year students graduating from a third of secondary schools. Diplomas were awarded based on school exams after external exams were cancelled.

Case study: France

External exams for the French Baccalauréat were cancelled and students’ grades were based on continuous assessment throughout their final year. Grades achieved in the penultimate year exams also counted towards the final grade. Grades were moderated and reviewed by an examination panel. The results revealed that the overall pass rate was a record high this year at 95.7% (compared to 88.1% last year).

The percentage of students who obtained a mention (très bien, bien or assez bien) also increased.


Très bien


Assez bien

Passable / sans mention


Baccalauréat général






Baccalauréat technologique






Baccalauréat professionel






Total (2020)






Total (2019)






Ministère de l’Éducation, de la Jeunesse and des Sports, Note d’Information no.20.25 – Juillet 2020

In the French system, every student who passes the Baccalauréat is entitled to a place at a public university, so the Ministry of Higher Education worked with institutions to make additional places available.

Controversy over calculated grades

In a number of countries, including the UK and Ireland, processes were put in place to use other evidence to calculate grades after exams were cancelled. In these cases, ensuring that results were fair to students ultimately took precedence over maintaining consistency with previous years to avoid grade inflation.

Case study: UK

In the UK, students were awarded centre-assessment grades (CAGs) submitted by their schools for GCSEs, A levels and Scottish Highers after the original standardisation process was judged to be unfair.

Grades submitted by schools were adjusted by an algorithm to ensure the grades awarded remained consistent with previous years. However, this led to nearly 40% of A level entries in England being downgraded from CAGs. Concerns were raised about the use of data on schools’ performance in previous years in the standardisation process and the awarding of CAGs without standardisation for small cohorts. This led to the decision to award students the CAGs in place of the calculated grades. In the minority of cases where the calculated grade was higher than the CAG, students retained their calculated grade.

As a result of this, the grade distributions for UK qualifications have a different profile to previous years, with a higher proportion of students awarded top grades.

Source: Ofqual, Joint Council on Qualifications (JCQ)

The highly selective nature of university admissions in the UK means that students who do not meet the conditions of an offer from a university by as little as one grade may miss out on the place. The decision to use CAGs led to more students meeting the conditions of their offers and additional places were created on medicine, dentistry and nursing courses, which are capped by the government.

Case study: Ireland

In Ireland, the Leaving Certificate was awarded on the basis of calculated grades. Schools submitted estimated grades which were then adjusted for consistency. The majority (79%) of grades submitted by schools remained unchanged following the standardisation process.

Source: Department of Education and Skills

Overall grades were higher than previous years; at higher level, 8.5% of entries received the top grade of H1, compared to 3% in 2019. Around 60% of estimated grades at higher level would need to have been lowered to bring results in line with previous years.

This has impacted higher education admissions in Ireland. Admission requirements (CAO points) for many courses are higher than in previous years despite extra places being created. After results were released, it was also found that there were some errors in grade calculations, leading to upgrades for some students and putting further pressure on the admissions process.

Comparable with previous years

Many national exams went ahead; some as planned, others after being postponed. Despite anxiety among students about how their performance might be affected, overall results do not appear to show that grades have suffered.

Exams for the Hong Kong Diploma of Secondary Education (HKDSE) were held in April and May, after being postponed by one month. Results were in line with previous years.

In Germany, exams went ahead for the Abitur in all states and results were similar to, or slightly better than, previous years.

Standard 12 exams in India were disrupted, with many exam boards in the middle of holding exams when lockdown restrictions were imposed in March. Where exams were completed, in some cases in two phases due to lockdown, pass rates generally matched or were better than previous years. For example, the pass rate for the Maharashtra Higher Secondary Certificate Examination was 90.66%, compared to 85.88% in 2019.

The format of some examinations was adapted in some way; changes included reducing the number of exams overall, cancelling oral exams, making exams optional and revising the format of the tests. The last approach was chosen for the Advanced Placement (AP), a US qualification taken by students in many different countries.

Case study: USA

The format of AP exams was adapted to enable them to be taken online. The online exams were open book and consisted of free response questions specifically designed for the revised format. Each exam lasted 45 minutes. They were graded according to the usual 1-5 scale. Most US institutions require a score of 3 or above to transfer credit.

The charts below show the percentage of entries awarded a grade of 3 or above in 2020, compared with 2019, for each subject.

Source: College Board, @AP_Trevor

For STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) subjects, this year’s results were very similar to previous years. Only physics (1 and 2) saw an increase of more than 5 percentage points in the proportion of students achieving a 3 or above. In other subjects, the percentage of students achieving a 3 or above was generally higher than in 2019, with English language, English literature and human geography recording among the largest increases.

ACT and SAT tests were held in-person, but some sessions were postponed or cancelled, and some test centres were unable to open. The majority of US universities and colleges responded by shifting to ‘test-optional’ admissions policies, which do not require students to present ACT or SAT scores as part of their applications. There was already a growing trend towards ‘test-optional’ policies before this year, precipitated by concerns that using the tests in admissions disadvantages students from less affluent backgrounds.

Further analysis

Grade comparison guidance in relation to upper secondary and undergraduate awards is available for around 130 countries on our International Grade Comparisons (IGC) database. IGC will be updated to reflect 2020 performances as soon as the relevant data becomes available.



20/10/2020 17:14:00