Ofqual has ordered exam boards to make changes to modern foreign language A-levels that it says may result in a higher percentage of pupils achieving A* grades.
The regulator analysed current exams in French, German and Spanish and discovered they were not doing the job they were supposed to. Damning findings included a “large number of questions” which were ineffective at differentiating between pupils of different abilities, particularly the very brightest.
But Ofqual also found that marks for the speaking sections of the qualifications were “very high”.
The watchdog’s investigation follows more than a decade of concern from language teachers about what they felt was an unfairly low proportion of A* grades in their subjects and unexplained variability in marking.
This summer, 6.6 per cent of A-level French entries were awarded an A*, compared with 10.1 per cent in classical subjects and 26.5 per cent in further maths.
In a joint statement, the Association of School and College Leaders, headteachers' union the NAHT and the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference of independent schools, said: “After years of concern expressed by state and independent school heads and languages teachers, we are pleased that Ofqual has recognised and will act on these historic unfairnesses.
“As the British Council and CBI have repeatedly said, it is vital that schools and universities have confidence in the fairness of language exams so that the long-standing decline in candidate numbers can be halted.”
Exam boards are being told to design better A-level questions that differentiate more between the most able candidates in time for next summer’s exams. They will also have to redesign their mark schemes.
Ofqual said its analysis “suggests that the percentage of students receiving an A* may, if anything, increase as a result of the changes”.
Exam boards accepted that changes were needed but were concerned that they could make the situation worse if rushed.
Ofqual found that the existing language A-levels were more effective at measuring the abilities of D and E grade pupils than those at the top of the range. It also suggested that there might be problems with marking quality as well as the design of qualifications.
The regulator said it expected changes to be made to the assessment of speaking in language A-levels in later years.
Glenys Stacey, Ofqual chief regulator, said: “Exam boards need to make sure that assessments are designed in the right way to differentiate fairly between students.
“It is vital that students, teachers and other users of these qualifications can have confidence in them and know that the results are fair. The changes we are proposing will do that. Those that should get the higher grades will do so – that’s only fair.”
The AQA exam board said it had been concerned about “problems” with languages A-level “for some time”.
“However, plans are already in place to fundamentally redevelop these qualifications and we think that is when to make the necessary improvements,” a spokesperson added. “Making changes before next summer will make things difficult for schools and increase the risk of something going wrong.”
Mark Dawe, chief executive of the OCR exam board, said: “We don’t disagree that improvements need to be made to A-level modern foreign languages.” He added that changes to next year’s exams “should be carefully considered so that students are not disadvantaged and unnecessary risk is not introduced”.
Ofqual: A-level languages crisis so severe reform could be fast-tracked - October 18 2013
Examinations - Languages in peril from grades 'farce' - September 6 2013