Media studies and sociology make easier A-level options than traditional choices such as English, history and biology, an analysis for the Government's exam watchdog has concluded.
Sixth-formers can achieve A-grades in media studies with "less impressive" performances than are required for an A-grade in English or history, researchers for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority found.
But psychology, long regarded by many as a soft option, was found to be just as rigorous a subject as biology at A-level, and both were more challenging than sociology, researchers said.
There had been fears that students were rejecting traditional subjects such as science, literature and languages to do so-called soft subjects such as media studies or psychology, increasing their grades and chances of a university place.
A-levels in media studies and psychology were compared with subjects chosen as their nearest comparable qualifications, English and history in the case of media studies, and biology and sociology for psychology. Experts compared the exam questions to see which was the most challenging and examined the completed scripts of candidates who achieved the same grades in different subjects to determine which were of the highest quality. Media studies was slightly easier than either English or history.
A comparison of candidates' exam scripts showed there was very little difference between subjects at the A grade boundary at AS-level, and at the E grade boundary the performance of media studies candidates was "slightly less secure" than that of English students, with history ranking between the two.
At A2, the second year of an A-level course, media studies candidates were considered to be "less impressive" than the English candidates at both A and E grades, with the history candidates in between.
A comparison of psychology, biology and sociology A-levels found that psychology was just as demanding a subject as biology and more challenging than sociology.
"Given that the initial impetus for this work was the suggestion that students were turning away from science to psychology because it was perceived to be the soft option, the study suggests this perception has little basis in fact, at least in terms of the demand of the examinations and the grading standards set," the report said.
The researchers also found history was a harder subject than geography, particularly at GCSE and AS-level. Researchers said GCSE candidates showed "much less evidence of attainment" than corresponding candidates in history. This was also true to a lesser extent at AS. Only in the work on A2 papers was performance judged to be comparable.
The study concluded: "These differences arose from significant variation in the way the two subjects were assessed. In geography, there was a preponderance of short-answer questions, which focused on very specific items of knowledge. For any question where candidates did not possess that knowledge, they had very little opportunity to show their further knowledge, understanding and skills."
A separate study found chemistry was marginally harder than physics, with biology easiest of the three.
Martin Ward, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders said: "Schools and colleges know that modern languages, mathematics and physical sciences are harder than other subjects. Students choose a variety of subjects, and the perception remains that some subjects are harder than others. This skews student choice and works to the disadvantage of the country and its future prosperity."
A-level subjects compared
Both an A and E grade in the course described by the former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead as a "one-way ticket to the dole queue" was deemed less impressive than either grade in English or history.
Researchers found the course was just as demanding as an A-level in biology. It was also found to be slightly more difficult than A-level sociology. There were concerns over marks given for "common sense" answers in sociology.
An A-level in the subject was ranked as just as demanding as A-level geography. However, geography was less difficult than history at AS and GCSE level.
The study of the science of matter ranked as more challenging than biology and physics at GCSE, AS and A-level. The report found the physics practical test at A-level less demanding "than it should be". It was suggested there was a "particularly large" step from double science GCSE to A-level.