What will top A-level candidates have to measure up to next?

28th August 2009 at 01:00
In a novel twist on the usual summer dispute about dumbing down, one exam board chief has called for a debate about new ways to distinguish between the highest achievers. William Stewart reports

The annual row over alleged A-level "dumbing down" has become a more predictable feature of British summertime than poor weather.

But last week the routine took a different turn when the head of one of the three main exam boards grabbed the headlines by calling for a debate about "standards and differentiating candidates".

It was surprising in itself to hear Jerry Jarvis, managing director of Edexcel, one of the main organisations supposed to ensure standards remain constant, calling for the debate over them to continue.

But his suggestion of new schemes to help universities to differentiate between the increasing number of pupils gaining the top grade was even more eye-catching.

Mr Jarvis's comments were prompted by the 12th successive rise in the proportion of entries gaining an A grade this year, with a climb to 26.7 per cent.

It is a situation that creates a sad flipside to the scenes of joyous pupils and their teachers finding out they have achieved a string of straight As.

As students like Amelia Al-Qazzaz - turned down by Oxford despite achieving 10 As - discovered, top grades no longer guarantee a top university place.

Asked whether exam boards could help by considering introducing a percentage mark alongside or instead of grades, Mr Jarvis revealed: "We're looking at other ways of discriminating or ranking figures quite regularly. In the future we may see complementary measures of performance."

The timing of his comments seems a little strange since the A* grade, a potential solution to the differentiation problem, is already on the stocks for introduction next year.

Greg Watson, Mr Jarvis's counterpart at the OCR exam board, highlighted the measure when he said it may be time to "crank up the standard" to pick out the very best candidates.

"There is a need to create some greater difference at the top end," he said.

Some presented his comments as supporting Mr Jarvis's suggestion that further measures might be needed. In fact, he was saying the opposite - that the A* grade would be in place in 2010 and should make the difference he feels is needed. "When we sit here next year, there will be a smaller category of students who have cleared the highest hurdle," Mr Watson concluded.

But although the grade will be awarded next year - to pupils scoring at least 90 per cent of the marks in a final A2 exam - it may be some time before it is actually used by a majority of universities.

Last year, the National Council for Educational Excellence - a committee of education and business leaders appointed by the Prime Minister - said the grade should bed in for the "first few years" before being used in the university admissions process.

Some suspect that the real reason for the recommendation was to buy time because of fears about the practical effect of the new grade.

Trials have suggested disproportionate numbers of A*s will go to private school pupils. That could create a problem for universities already being criticised for doing too little to admit proportionate numbers from state schools.

Nevertheless, Cambridge University, Imperial College and University College London have broken ranks and will start using the grade for admissions to some courses from next year.

Mr Jarvis wants to see how the A* grade works out. But his comments suggest he thinks something extra might still be needed.

"As grades themselves have given us some difficulty because of the increase in pass rates, we will continue to look for other complementary ways of (differentiating between candidates)," he said. "We do have a number of mechanisms that we can use."

One idea mentioned in the press last week was providing universities with the grades pupils achieved in each of the individual modules that make up an A-level. But it is unlikely to prove a radical solution as all universities have been able to opt to receive this information from the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (Ucas) since last year anyway.

Universities do not have the same routine access to the actual percentage marks that Mr Jarvis was asked about. But as Cambridge University regularly demonstrates, it is still perfectly easy to obtain the information through their prospective students if they want to.

There is another possible solution mentioned by Mr Jarvis that would represent a very radical change.

"We should have a debate about a recalibration and take our time to do it," he told journalists.

In other words, rather than simply adding a new top grade, shift all the existing grades upwards, immediately making them harder to achieve than they were in previous years.

Mr Jarvis's rationale for this debate - if percentages of A-grade candidates continue to get higher, then eventually someone says "We've got to raise the bar" - is understandable.

He argued that the A-level was "still a hugely trusted and understood brand".

"But it will suffer from increasing discrimination issues as more and more students make that grade," he said. "It's a consequence of success rather than a failure of the system itself."

He also pointed out that people already "have a good feel of what's meant by a grade". So is it really wise to consider such a wholesale change in grading?

Some think not, and Jarvis's suggestion attracted swift and strong opposition.

John Dunford, Association of School and College Leaders general secretary, argues that the change "does not make sense" because A-levels will be getting harder next year in any case.

The new-style qualifications are designed to provide pupils with more "stretch and challenge" through the introduction of more extended writing and less structured questions.

This increased difficulty has already been recognised by Ucas, which has decided to drop the value of the International Baccalaureate in relation to the A-level because of the changes.

Mike Cresswell, director general of the AQA exam board, said the idea of recalibration was a "red herring".

"It does raise some very difficult issues which we don't need to raise, in terms of standards year on year," he told The TES.

"If it became harder to achieve a grade compared to the previous year, people wouldn't be in fair competition for a university place."

Dr Cresswell said there was "no need" for any debate on recalibration at the moment and that there were no ongoing discussions about the issue among the exam boards.

So why did Mr Jarvis bring up the idea of recalibration? Was it a deliberate and premeditated attempt to open up a debate, or had he just fallen into the trap of thinking aloud in front of journalists?

His refusal to discuss the matter any further this week suggests it may have been the latter. His press office put out a three-line summary of what was a much longer speech. It conspicuously fails to mention the R word.

But even if the idea of recalibration is dropped, the remaining three solutions to the differentiation problem all raise real potential difficulties for the majority of teachers and pupils in this country.

This year saw the gap between the number of high-achieving pupils in independent and state schools grow. More than half of all private school entries were graded A, compared with only a fifth of those in comprehensives.

Offering finer gradations between these pupils - whether through the A* grade, providing module grades to universities or providing overall percentage marks - is likely to make this gulf grow wider still.

Drs Dunford and Cresswell have widely differing views on the A* grade. The heads' leader was against it from the start and is hoping most universities follow the recommendation not to use it for the first few years.

Dr Cresswell does not understand why there should be any need for the new grade to "bed in". He argues it will be as valid next year as it will be in five years and hopes universities do use it.

But both men recognise the potential consequences of the A* grade and do not want to see it used by universities in isolation.

They have a "social inclusion" issue, according to Dr Cresswell. "I hope they will use (the A*) in terms of a selection process that takes into account a broad view of standards," he said.

For Dr Dunford, the issue goes even further, beyond the A* grade, and is rooted in the whole nature of A-levels.

"Universities should be interested in the potential of students, and that is something that straight A-level results do not tell them," he said. "That is why American universities use Sats - because those tests are a measure of potential, whereas A-levels are tests of achievement."

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