A-levels are internationally "below par", according to education secretary Michael Gove, who has told the qualifications watchdog Ofqual to "guarantee" that our exam standards "match the best in the world". But this week Ofqual reported that, in terms of A-levels at least, they already do.
Interim findings from its study, comparing the A-level with equivalent qualifications used in at least 14 other high-performing territories (see box), shows that the "gold standard" actually "came through comparatively well".
They were due to be announced yesterday during a debate on exam standards organised by Ofqual in central London.
Dennis Opposs, Ofqual's director of standards, told TES that the A-level compared favourably against international competitors in terms of the breadth and depth of knowledge they covered and the degree of challenge posed.
"We are not saying in all cases, everywhere, the questions were necessarily the most demanding," he said. "And we certainly aren't saying that there aren't some improvements we ought to be looking at. But, yes, they (A-levels) stood up pretty well."
The study was started by Ofqual in July 2010 in response to Mr Gove's concerns. And if the education secretary is surprised by its findings on A-levels, he may be even more taken aback by some of the watchdog's suggestions for reform, which include more multiple choice questions and greater internal assessment.
The regulator, which is being given a legal duty to ensure England's exam standards match those internationally, looked at A-levels and overseas exams or university entrance tests taken by the top 10 per cent of 18- year-olds in four subjects.
In maths, it found that some countries, typically those in northern Europe, tended to focus on applied maths, while those in south-east Asia emphasised pure maths.
But the A-level was "unusual" in covering both and was "doing quite a good job" in terms of preparing pupils for a range of university courses.
The Chinese university entrance exam, the Gao Kao, had more demanding maths questions than the A-level. But it had an even narrower focus than pure maths and was "mostly algebra", Mr Opposs said. "There wasn't any calculus, there weren't any vectors and there was little trigonometry."
In chemistry, the A-level was found to have the most breadth and depth of all the systems. But Mr Opposs pointed out that while pupils in England might study three subjects, they might study up to 13 in, say, Denmark, making depth much harder to achieve.
Ofqual found that A-level English focused almost exclusively on traditional types of literary text, whereas other countries took a broader interpretation and might include a film.
"A-levels were felt to be strong in preparing people for the sort of English courses that happen at universities in this country," said Mr Opposs.
History A-level also "stood out" as being valuable higher education preparation with a "good balance between content and the right sorts of skills". In other territories, such as New York State, history was found to be a bit more like citizenship.
Speaking at the same Ofqual debate, Tim Oates was expected to explain how thousands of "tiny decisions" could have led standards in exam content to slip over time.
Mr Oates, research director at Cambridge Assessment, parent company of the OCR exam board, admitted last year that one reason for "subtle" grade inflation could be exam boards bowing to political pressure to make exams more "accessible".
Mr Oates, who is also leading the Government-commissioned review of the national curriculum, said the need for greater clarity and accessibility in papers might have led to "more structured questions" or more detailed mark schemes.
"You begin to introduce them because you are worried about the reliability and then suddenly people start teaching little bits associated with the mark scheme rather than the process of essay writing," he said. "These are all little steps you take, and we have got to be more sensitive to what each of these little steps means in terms of the different sorts of standards.
"You can't fault the motives, but they can often push the system in a particular direction which you only notice over quite a long period of time."
Qualifications and territories covered by Ofqual's study:
- New South Wales, Australia
- Alberta, Canada
- Hong Kong
- The Netherlands
- New Zealand
- South Korea
- New York State, US
- International Baccalaureate
- ACT college entrance exam, US
- Cambridge pre-U
- International A-levels
- Domestic A-levels.
Original headline: A-levels `stand up' to the best in the world