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Row looms over unlimited A-level resits

Moves to scrap baffling rules on retaking modules will upset traditionalists. Warwick Mansell reports

STUDENTS could get unlimited chances to resit elements of their A-levels under controversial proposals put to England's examinations watchdog in the wake of last year's regrading furore.

Examining boards are pushing for the move as ministers try to simplify the horrendously complex system for aggregating the marks students get in their AS and A2 modules.

But the change would be contentious. Ministers limited the number of module resits three years ago because they feared being accused by traditionalists of lowering standards.

At that time, the board of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority had called for multiple resits to be permitted, but was overruled by the Government. It was due to decide whether to back the latest proposal as The TES went to press.

The current A-level has three teaching modules covered by the AS exam, and three covered by A2. Students are technically allowed only one re-sit per module.

But all candidates can get around this rule. A student in the lower sixth can sit a module in January, then re-sit it in the summer. The higher of these marks counts towards their grade at AS.

But, provided the student gets the examining board to declare their AS-result immediately, an arrangement known as "cashing in", they can then re-sit that same module twice more in the upper sixth.

The better of the two scores they get in these re-sits then counts towards their final A-level. In effect this makes their score in the module the best of four, rather than the intended two, attempts.

Examining boards believe this system is so complex that students at schools that have mastered its intricacies are at an advantage.

The rules also force some students to "cash in" their AS-level grades needlessly early, say the boards.

Former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson said in his second report into the regrading controversy last December that this complexity had undermined public trust in A-levels.

But multiple resits are controversial despite being a feature of modular A-levels in the 1990s.

Sheila Lawlor, director of the right-wing think tank Politeia, said that they would lead to grade inflation, the very charge which, she said, had led to last year's re-grading controversy.

Dr Lawlor added that it was unfair for some students to be judged on a first attempt, while others had three or four more attempts at a module.

She said: "How are universities and employers meant to sift through endless applications from students with top grades? Should a student who gets A grades taking five hard subjects only once really be treated the same as one who has the same marks after taking three or four resits? Universities and employers will lose confidence in the exam."

A QCA spokesman would not say what position the exam authority would take on the issue. He said: "We are considering this and it is under review, but until advice goes off to ministers we will not be making a comment."

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