Are grade rises on the level?

15th August 2003 at 01:00
England this week recorded not only its hottest temperature since records began (100.6F) but its highest A-level pass rate (95.4 per cent). But at a baking press conference in central London on Wednesday, the exam boards'

spokesmen kept their suit jackets on and their excitement in check.

As with the heatwave, everyone had seen this new exam record coming. After all, this is the 21st year in succession that the pass rate has risen. But the exam board officials insisted the improvement was genuine. John Milner, convener of the Joint Council for General Qualifications, claimed the exams process had been tightened after last year's disaster. Every student in every subject could be confident their awards were well-deserved, he said.

We must hope this assurance does not return to haunt him. The exam boards and the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority have indeed made herculean efforts to shore up the A-level system (comedian Jonny Vegas and the Theosophical Society are among the strange bedfellows persuaded to endorse the exam publicly). But exam officers are not yet out of the frightening wood they entered last autumn. They must wait to see how many appeals they get. They will also have to answer claims that the pass-rate rise is being fuelled by a surge in the number of re-sits. The claim that students are avoiding "difficult" subjects such as physics, chemistry, French and German and choosing "softer" options such as psychology also has to be addressed.

This is not a new issue, of course. Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon, of Durham University, drew attention to the differing levels of difficulty of A-level subjects back in the mid-1990s (physics was the hardest). But it is debatable whether the problem has been properly addressed.

If the boards cannot prove that it is as hard to gain a grade A in chemistry as it is in business studies, the efforts of students and teachers will again be undermined. It will also increase fears that the boards, despite their meticulous processes, cannot really maintain identical standards from year to year. They cannot afford to see such doubts grow. And neither can the country.

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number

Comments

The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now