Overload of exams must go

28th September 2001 at 01:00
One way through the advanced level chaos would be to make AS-levels all coursework, says Mervyn Lebor

One of the many difficulties of teaching the new AS system has been the timing of handing in coursework, deadlines for which coincided with the exams starting in May. Students didn't have enough time to revise because they were still completing extended essays.

The Joint Council for General Qualifications' new instructions for ASassessment attempt to address this by reducing the three AS exams in most subjects to one paper. Thus problems of timetabling exam rooms and "clashes", employing sufficient invigilators and examiners and stopping students taking up to nine exams in two days are to be solved via a rationalisation of time-scale.

However, this does not solve the problems caused by overloading an already highly-pressurised assessment system. Relentless annual testing for three years on the trot via GCSE, AS and A2 is to continue, all in the name of broadening the curriculum and supposedly raising standards.

Yet time for business enterprise, community work and physical education have been reduced because so much of the teachers' focus is on getting students through their exams.

The new three-hour AS exam format is more stressful because all the pressure is skewered onto success in one time slot. The same applies to putting AS exams off until the second year and taking them with the A2s. Students will be overloaded with all their exams falling in the last three weeks of their school career, replicating the now defunct A-level system.

The suggestion of introducing the GCSE and subsequently AS a year earlier forces the same system on young people who are even less developed in terms of a rounded education. Furthermore, it allows high-flyers to have a year of self-development in the lower sixth, but withholds the same possibility from their less-brilliant classmates.

One solution would be to reconstruct AS as all coursework and A2 as all exams. If AS were all coursework it would be a defining characteristic and would mark a gradation of difficulty between AS and A2.

Secondly, there wouldn't be a succession of crucial exams for three years on the run at a time when young people are coming to adulthood.

Thirdly, this is not such a radical departure either from the A-level - which in many subjects had 25 per cent or more coursework over two years - or the current AS and A2, each of which offer an option of 33 per cent coursework every year.

Fourthly, all coursework at AS would widen knowledge, involve students in research projects, and help them structure arguments. Students would start to become independent learners and develop study skills for adult work or higher education.

There are some problems with extending the role of coursework. The accusation of plagiarism is never far from the examiner's mind. Parental support that turns into active help disadvantages students who are not the off-spring of educationally-motivated professionals, dedicated to rewriting their children's homework.

And then there is the Internet with its relevant written essays, produced for sale or just to scupper the system. Well, IT plagiarism detection systems exist.

And when does teaching towards the coursework task become replicated as the student's answer? Results-related pay coupled with reputations for getting students through exams give teachers a vested interest in ensuring that their students' coursework is successful. There is certainly more teacher control over outcome with coursework than in exams.

One answer to these problems is that coursework could mostly be done in class time, with research brought in and integrated as part of assessment under scrutiny. This is a model of coursework which reflects working practices in many realms of adult life.

Broadening experience, raising standards and achieving rigour might just be a realistic possibility under these circumstances.

Mervyn Lebor is a lecturer in FE in West Yorkshire.

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