What's all this about A*s at A-level?
I've created this article because TSR seems to be filled with queries about the new A* grade for A-levels, so this will hopefully answer some questions.
So will I be able to get an A*?
The answer is it depends. Firstly, the A* is only being awarded to people sitting their final A2 exams from September 2009 onwards (the grade first being available in the summer 2010 certification). This means that people who've just taken their AS-levels (in summer 2008) will not be able to get A*s. However, people who are currently in year twelve will be the first generation of candidates to be awarded an A* if they meet the requirements.
Wait! That's unfair! I've taken A2/AS early, can I not get an A*?
Unlucky. If you started your course before September 2008, you won't be able to get an A* on the current syllabus that you're doing. The syllabuses have been reformed for first teaching starting September 2008, so I'm afraid you can't get an A* unless you're following one of these new syllabuses.
However, don't worry about it. In the Cambridge letter (linked to below) it says that candidates will not be disadvantaged by taking A2s early, so if you have/will be, it'll be all right. Many other universities that have an A* as part of their conditions/entry requirements have stated that they recognize that many people would have qualified for an A* but were unable to get it because they had "cashed in" their grades before the A* was introduced, and would so ask for module grades and be able to figure out for themselves if your A-Level A would hypothetically really be an A*.
What mark do you need for an A*?
For subjects other than Maths, Further Maths and Additional Further Maths, to get an A*, you must meet the following two requirements:
- 80% UMS overall (i.e. the current requirements for an A).
- 90% UMS overall in the A2 units.
That's all there is to it. You don't get an A* for 90% overall. Only the A2 units (i.e. the units normally taken in Year 13) count towards the award of an A*. Even if you get 100% in your AS units, 89% in your A2 ones isn't enough for an A*. Similarly, you don't need to get an A at AS to get an A* at A2 if you get 90% in the A2 units, and assuming your A2 marks are high enough to pull your AS marks to an A grade overall.
Can I get A* at AS level?
No, you can only get it in the whole A-Level (AS + A2).
What about Maths A-level?
The only A-levels to be unchanged by the 2008 reform are Maths, Further Maths, Further Maths (Additional) (although some of the individual units in the Edexcel A-levels have been modified; see here), Statistics, and Use of Maths AS. No AS will have the A* grade available (so you cannot get an A* in Use of Maths).
For the Maths A-level, the A* will require an 80% of the A-level, plus 90% in the aggregate of units C3 and C4 only. This means that you must get over 180 UMS in total for C3 and C4.
For the Further Maths A-level (and presumably the Additional Further Maths A-level too), the best three A2 units will contribute to the A* grade conditions. This means that of the 6 units in Further Maths, the top 3 A2 units must have a total of over 270 UMS (i.e. an average of over 90%). A2 units for Further Maths are classed as FP2 and above, and all the 2nd applied units and above (i.e. M2, M3, M4, M5, S2, S3, S4, D2, DC, NC, DE). FP1 is classed as an AS unit and therefore wouldn't count towards the 270 UMS required for the A*.
Statistics A-level will have its three A2 units counting towards the A*. A total of 270 UMS must come from the aggregate of SS04, SS05 and SS06.
Those people who may have done any of the AS or A2 units earlier can still attain the A* grade for the A-level, provided they sit at least one A2 exam in summer 2010 (or later), or they have at least one previously taken unit that has not been cashed-in for any qualification. The A-level qualification must then be cashed-in again.
Can I retake modules?
Yes, you can. The A* grade results rules are applied to the best available result for each AS and A2 unit; for each unit, this best available result may be achieved at the first or subsequent sitting.
What about CIE international A-levels?
It seemed to me that this A* thing was only for students sitting their A-level exams in the UK, not for International A-level candidates. I searched the Cambridge International Examinations website thoroughly and there is no information about this. I asked my Examinations Officer and he had no clue what I was talking about. Never mind. I wrote to CIE to ask, especially about the conditions (80%+ overall, 90%+ in A2 units) and got this reply:
"The first examination session that the A* grade at A level is available from is June 2010 (so this affects candidates starting a 2-year A level course in September 2008). The thresholds at each grade at syllabus (or option) level are calculated by adding together the thresholds for the individual components, taking account of any weighting necessary to match the weights of the papers stated in the syllabus. In some cases the threshold for a Grade A or B at syllabus level may be slightly less than the (weighted) sum of the component thresholds.
The candidate’s total mark, again incorporating any necessary weighting of components, is compared with the thresholds to determine the candidate’s overall grade.
Emily Veal Customer Services Advisor"
So apparently it is going to be introduced but since CIE does not disclose UMS or percentages and "grade A* does not exist at the level of an individual component", it seems like this is to become yet another of CIE's obscure grading regulations.
CIE has released the Summer 2011 Grade thresholds, which contain the grade boundaries in terms of raw marks. There are large fluctuations, varying from subject to subject. As far as the information provided to the exam officer of my college goes, the grade boundary is determined in a similar fashion to IGCSEs offered by CIE, where the top 10~15% of the grade distribution will be awarded A*s. In regard to the original paragraph, percentages are provided by CIE on the statements of results, although UMS is absent.
What have universities said about the new grade?
There has been a lot of speculation as to how universities will use A*s in offers, and rumours such as "Oxbridge will want 3 A*s". This can't be answered definitively, but details of university responses are beginning to emerge.
Cambridge will, from 2010, make their standard offer A*AA - see here for more details.
UCL have made the standard offer A*AA for the following subjects:
- European Social and Political Studies
- Statistical Science
Imperial have announced (not exhaustively):
- Computing (A*AA)
- Mathematics and Computer Science (A*A*A with A*s in Maths and Further Maths)
- Aeronautical Engineering (A*A*A with the A*s in Maths and Physics)
- Electrical Engineering (A*AA)
- Information Systems Engineering (A*AA)
- Mechanical Engineering (A*AA)
- Physics (A*AA with the A* in Maths)
- Chemical Engineering (A*AA with the A* in Maths)
What is the A* grade worth on the UCAS tariff?
The A* grade is worth 140 points, 20 points above the A grade.
What about the AEAs?
When A*s come in, most AEAs are going out. The last sitting of most AEAs will be in 2009. However, the Edexcel Maths AEA has been extended until 2015. 
An explanation of this can be found in a document issued by the JCQ here .
Where do you get this information from?
The information about A*s is in all of the new A-level specifications, and the news about the withdrawal of the AEAs was shown to me in an e-mail from QCA sent to one of my teachers, and I've also seen it on the internet somewhere.