Coursework is to survive in many A-level subjects after campaigning by teachers. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has published criteria for new versions of AS and A2 exams which will begin in September 2008.
But the exams watchdog has put off making a decision on how A-levels can differentiate between high-ability candidates. Universities say they need to be able to distinguish between the plethora of candidates with A grades.
Instead the QCA will test a number of ways of introducing more difficult questions to scripts ready for 2008.
Ken Boston, QCA chief executive, had fuelled fears among teachers that internal assessment would be scrapped entirely in many subjects after saying it would remain only where it was the most reliable way of ranking pupils. Education ministers have also asked the qualifications watchdog to explore scaling down coursework because of concerns about plagiarism and buying essays from the internet.
The criteria, published this week, delighted teachers of history, science, English and design and technology, which are among those which will retain internal assessment. The QCA said its decisions had been influenced by the 3,000 teachers who responded to its consultation.
John Dunford, general secondary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: "The plans seem to be sufficiently flexible about internal assessment and take into account that it is different in different subjects, rather than the dogmatic stamp-out of it which we had feared."
However, internal assessment is to be dropped from geography, despite complaints that it may lead to cutbacks in fieldwork and extended projects.
David Lambert, chief executive of the Geographical Association, said:
"Engaging with the real world, which is messy and untidy and not how text books portray it, is essential and we ought to assess these sorts of practical inquiry skills. The practical, applied nature of geography could be lost." Mr Lambert said he also feared the move would make it easier for the QCA to scrap internal assessment from geography GCSE next, where it was even more important.
The QCA criteria suggest that exam boards will be clearer and stricter with schools about the way they should carry out internal assessment. A QCA spokesman said it expected more schools would opt for controlled assessment, where projects are carried out under supervision by teachers.
For some schools, the changes to English and history may mean that pupils do more coursework as they include a larger compulsory element of internal assessment.
The teaching unions are concerned that the revised A-levels could add to an overload of changes concerned with assessment which are scheduled for 2008, when the first new vocational diplomas will be introduced, as well as further changes to the 11 to 14 curriculum.
John Bangs, head of education for the National Union of Teachers: "More and more, 2008 is looking like an immovable force on which education reform is going to crash."
News,4; Leader, 18