Marks system could replace 'misleading' A-level grades

Exam board claims they are more accurate predictors of university performance

William Stewart

One of England's big three exam boards has unveiled proposals that could lead to A-level grades being replaced by more detailed and accurate individual marks.

Cambridge Assessment, parent company of the OCR board, is suggesting that university admissions officers make use of the actual marks achieved by a candidate in an A or AS-level, instead of grades.

It argues the change would address the charge that A-levels are inaccurate predictors of pupils' performance at university, by making full use of the much finer mark schemes.

Pupils and universities could receive grades, marks, grade boundaries and information showing where a candidate's marks lie in the overall distribution of marks awarded.

Simon Lebus, Cambridge Assessment chief executive, said: "If you try to compare someone's A-level grades with their degree outcomes you get pretty poor correlation. But if you compare A-level UMS (uniform mark scheme) marks with degree outcomes you get very good correlation."

Cambridge University has already made use of A-level marks in admissions. In 2009, some of its colleges required some applicants to score at least 90 per cent in one of their final A2 A-level exams. But most universities still make offers based on grades or Ucas point scores.

Dr Wendy Piatt, director general of the elite Russell Group of universities, said: "Academic qualifications are an extremely important source of information about academic ability. We welcome the fact that our universities now have access to unit grades as well as overall grades, and many of our admissions tutors now take unit marks into account."

Mr Lebus told the Westminster Education Forum last week that grades could be misleading. A candidate whose mark was just below the AB boundary was likely to be closer in ability to grade-A pupils than other grade-B pupils, he said.

A-level candidates already receive their marks alongside grades, but without the context of the distribution of other marks.

Cambridge Assessment has produced specimen exam certificates, including a graph showing grade boundaries and where a candidate's mark lies in relation to those of other candidates taking the exam.

The board is not proposing to make the change unilaterally. Mr Lebus said it needed to be a "system-wide" reform and added he thought marks should be used alongside grades, not instead of them. But if such a change was adopted it could make A-level grades increasingly redundant.

Mr Lebus believes it would also remove the task of trying to ensure that an A-level grade in one subject is directly comparable to the same grade in another, very different subject. Instead, exam boards could release information allowing comparisons of where grade boundaries lie in the overall distribution of marks in different subjects.

It could demonstrate, for example, that in French - where nearly a third of candidates achieve As - a grade B was much lower down in the overall ranking of candidates than in psychology, where fewer than one in 10 achieve an A.

Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said that moving to marks and a post-qualifications admissions (PQA) system for university would require work. "A PQA together with the greater use of A-level marks would have been a much better way of proceeding than the new A* grade," he added.


Ucas's summer speed-up call

The university admissions system should be overhauled to allow pupils to apply for places after receiving their A-level grades, the chief executive of Ucas has said.

Mary Curnock Cook said exam boards should "speed up marking" to give pupils time to apply for university during the summer they complete their A-levels.

Under the present system, pupils are offered conditional places early in the year based on predicted grades, and places are confirmed when they receive their final grades.

Ms Curnock Cook said: "I have come to the conclusion that probably the biggest single reform we can do in the qualifications arena of higher education is to move to a post-qualifications admissions system."

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William Stewart

William Stewart

William Stewart is News editor at Tes

Find me on Twitter @wstewarttes

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