How they decided to move goalposts

The exam boards call it 'maintaining standards' but the A-level marking fiasco has tested public confidence in the system to the limit. Julie Henry reports on the main players in the drama and what went on behind the scenes

WHEN senior exam board officials met Sir William Stubbs on July 26 at the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority's London offices, they knew he would not like what they had to say.

Results of the Government's new A-level were due out in less than three weeks and there was a potential problem - the results would show a considerable rise.

Meetings with the exam watchdog's straight-talking Scottish chairman have been described as "rocky at the best of times". An exam-board insider said:

"You do not expect Stubbs to be gentlemanlike but that day he was very bullish because he was rattled."

Sir William did not instruct anyone to "whack down grades" but he did threaten the chief executives with a public inquiry if the grades were put out as they stood.

The insider said: "The boards wanted a meeting with Estelle Morris but Sir William said it was his job to brief ministers. To suggest it never came up in discussions with ministers is highly suspect."

However, a former colleague of Sir William said: "He would probably have said, 'we may have a problem but we have the solution'. Ministers might not have known the full extent of it or had to decide anything at all."

OCR chief executive Ron McLone admitted that last-minute grade shifts did occur. He wrote to examiners to explain that A2 standards finally established had to be "more demanding" and that he believed that "such decisions were justified". Whether you call this "fixing" or "maintaining standards" depends on whether you are a teacher or an exam-board senior manager.

The furore that has engulfed the education world in the last few weeks, first revealed in The TES, has been brewing for more than a year.

When the AS results were published for the first time last year, ministers breathed a sigh of relief. In political terms the 86.6 per cent pass rate and 17 per cent grade As were acceptable. However, what was not immediately apparent was that the massive failure rate of the maths AS-level skewed the results.

Pupils began to ditch their poorest AS subjects to concentrate on those in which they had achieved the best grades. Resits were taken in large numbers, not only to improve on a poor grade but to push Bs up to A grades. A fair proportion of students took their first A2 module in January. They were apparently marked and graded at the harder A2 level. No problems were reported and students tucked their good grades under their belts.

The scene was set for the dramatic finale that is still being played out. The summer exam marks began flooding in and were fed through the uniform mark scheme, a complex statistical mechanism that turns raw scores into marks out of 100. Grade boundaries set by awarding committees were applied. The summer A2 grades were then combined with the January A2 grades and the AS grades.

And out of this hugely complicated process, the grades that emerged in some subjects were way above those achieved in the last year of the old-style A-level.

Exam boards use grade movements, legitimately, every year. Paragraph one of their statutory code of practice states that standards must be maintained year on year and across subjects.

However, this year it was undertaken to such a degree that it produced the anomaly of straight A students being awarded a U, particularly by OCR which traditionally gives out more top grades.

To pupils, parents and many teachers - made aware of the workings of the exam system for the first time - the process seems perverse and a gross injustice to individual students.

Mike Tomlinson's report, due out today, will tackle allegations of who said what to whom and why. It looks likely that Sir William will take the blame.

Heads' associations claim there is clear evidence from different people at different stages of the process of pressure from the watchdog. Examiners who have seen their marking overruled have come forward. One QCA scrutineer has resigned and at least one senior subject examiner at OCR has left.

The public has seen the exam system in the cold light of day and it makes no sense.

The furore has revealed that "standards" are not a reliable, set-in-stone given but are where someone decides to put the grade boundaries, whether for political or statistical expediency.

Opinion, 25 Letters, 27

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