Changes proposed to A-level exams


A new report by exam watchdog, Ofqual, has revealed that first-year university students have shallower knowledge than pupils 15 years ago despite rising A-level grades.

It reports widespread concern among university academics and teachers that sixth-formers have improved their grades through repeatedly resitting parts of their courses.

Labour’s controversial reforms to A-levels in 2000 split the courses into short modules, each with their own exams that could be retaken an unlimited number of times. But the Ofqual report contains calls from universities and schools for the changes to be reversed and for grades to be decided solely by final exams at the end of two years.

The findings follow the announcement that Education Secretary Michael Gove will relinquish his department’s control over setting A-levels and hand it back to universities, ending  30 years of the state’s involvement in running the exams.

In a letter sent to Ofqual, Mr Gove raised concerns that A-levels were failing to stretch pupils. His proposals, which could be implemented from September 2014 for students sitting exams in 2016, would apply to the English exam system - but exam boards also set A-levels for pupils in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Ofqual's report is based on interviews with 71 university academics, as well as discussion groups with employers and A-level teachers.

It found many academics did not think that new students had the skills needed for degree study. As a result, academics will be given a key role in deciding subject content and the format of assessment in an attempt to protect A-levels against political meddling that has dented public faith in the exams.

Ofqual’s report found that resits were perceived to have taken ‘a slice of prestige from the A-level’ because students are able to ‘get over the finishing line’ by repeatedly retaking modules.

‘Teachers in particular said that A-level students approach examinations with the expectation that they will always get a second chance,’ the report says. ‘While this may relax some, interviewees thought it was detrimental overall because this “isn’t how life works”.’

The report added: ‘An increase in the number of students achieving higher grades was felt by some teachers and higher education sector staff partly to be a consequence of resitting to improve grades.’

It said grade inflation had made it harder for admissions staff to identify the brightest students and  concluded: ‘A-level pass mark data shows that students increasingly achieved better A-level grades between 1996 and 2010.

‘Higher education institutions do not report a comparative increase in the abilities of first year undergraduates, despite the rise in the number of first class degrees over the same time period.

‘If anything, students’ theoretical subject knowledge was said to have grown broader but shallower.’

It said that universities were increasingly forced to run remedial classes to correct ‘deficiencies’ in basic academic skills.

Ofqual’s study, based on interviews with academics and teachers, contained calls for a reduction in the number of modules and potentially the scrapping of AS-levels, introduced as a stepping-stone to the full A-level.

Key opportunities identified in the report for improving the design, regulation and application of the A level qualification include:

  • Ensuring that A level qualifications are equally difficult across Awarding Organisations and, insofar as possible, subjects would help mitigate concerns about students being less prepared for higher education or employment due to them studying a specification or a subject which is perceived to be less demanding;
  • A more rigorous assessment of synoptic learning which is taught throughout the A level course could help identify those students who are the most prepared for higher education, and should form a key part of being able to achieve a high grade;
  • A move away from modular assessment – although not necessarily to a full two year linear model – would foster an environment where students are more able to develop synoptic learning and allow more space for teachers to focus on skills and subject narrative. It might also give students time to explore their subject independently, or develop their skills for higher education by taking the EPQ or other enriching qualifications; and,
  • A review of the way in which students are able to re-sit exams would encourage a more appropriate attitude to learning and completing assessment at higher education.
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