A-levels get tougher at the top

30th March 2007 at 01:00
Open-ended exam questions asking students to analyse, evaluate and compare will help the brightest to shine

A-LEVEL questions are to be made harder for bright students from next year.

All candidates will have to answer open-ended questions and essays will be a feature of almost all subjects, in a move characterised by a headteachers' leader as a return to old-style exams.

The changes are designed to capture the interest of high-flying teenagers and stop them being penalised for more creative answers that fail to conform to rigid mark schemes.

In both of the harder A2 papers, students will have to demonstrate their understanding of the whole subject, whereas currently they must do so in only one paper. And they will have to do well at A2 to qualify for the top grade, which from 2008 will be A*, whereas currently students can mask poorer performance in A2 papers by doing well at AS-level.

Other changes will include a cut from six modules to four in most subjects.

Coursework will be compulsory in A-level English for the first time, while it will be scrapped for geography and psychology.

The changes are contained in draft specifications being drawn up by the exam boards. Final versions will be sent to schools and colleges by September.

The Government has grappled for two years with how to make A-levels more stimulating for the most academic students, without demotivating others.

The introduction of A* grades will go some way to answering universities'

complaints about the difficulties they face in choosing between A-grade students.

Ministers also wanted to change question styles to encourage brighter teenagers to work hard throughout their courses. They have been persuaded that the current system, in which questions can be structured to lead students towards answers, can stifle creativity. Some private schools are said to have advised students to reduce the quality of their answers to conform to mark scheme demands, because highly original work would not be rewarded.

Clara Kenyon, director of qualifications at the OCR exam board, gave an example of how question styles might change. "As opposed to being asked to name something and then going on to discuss it, the question might well say things such as 'analyse, evaluate and compare', so that we get a greater range of response," she said.

John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the "re-introduction" of these elements would make the exams a better gauge of high-flying students' analytical abilities.

But he said there would be a lot of nervousness among teachers: "It's very important that there are plenty of trial papers so that teachers and students can be familiar with these new-style examinations well in advance."

Last year, the Department for Education and Skills argued that harder questions should be optional, otherwise it would be difficult to keep the standard of the exam constant. But now they will be compulsory, after the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority warned that optional questions would present major technical problems.

Exam boards this week insisted that A-levels would not be made harder, although the OCR board said it had received many complaints from teachers who feared that would be the case.

The standard required of students is being kept the same for grades A to E, the boards said: all students be given more chance to show what they know and the brightest being rewarded with A*.

Among the changes to individual subjects, chemistry is expected to see the re-introduction of three tough topics - free energy, entropy and electrode potentials - which have been absent from the exam for years.

* OCR specifications are at www.ocr.org.ukdraftalevelqualifications

WHAT NEW A2 QUESTIONS WILL LOOK LIKE

Sociology

Outline and assess the view that it is factors outside the school which affect the educational achievement of different social classes.

English Literature

"Women characters are always presented as defending the truth, no matter what the cost." By comparing two pre-1800 texts, how far and in what ways would you agree with this view?

Government and Politics

Discuss the effectiveness of the rule of law in upholding the liberty of citizens both in theory and in practice.

Source: OCR

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