Wise up with real marks

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Ditch grades at A-level which have lost their value, writes Neil King

The recent talk of offering university places by lottery on account of the high number of candidates who attain A grades at A-level, or of introducing an A* grade, are a sure sign that it is indeed time to abolish A-level grades.

All A-levels are marked out of a maximum of 600 using what is called the Uniform Mark Scale (UMS). Whatever the raw marks for an individual paper or unit, and wherever senior examiners decide in an award meeting that the threshold for each grade should be, everything is converted to this single scale, with the threshold of 240 for a bare E, rising in steps of 60 marks to 480 for a bare A.

And this is where the problem starts for the ever-increasing number of candidates who, as a result of good teaching and diligent pupil application to the requirements of examinations (they work much harder than my peers and I did in the 1960s) gain A grades. Why has the A grade been fixed to cover 120 marks, double the number of any other grade? One can see the logic of suggesting an A* grade.

Yet, going a simple step further than that proposed by Conor Ryan (TES, September 19), all that needs to happen for fine distinctions to be made is that grades disappear (actually, they are not there in the first place; they are made to appear), and that universities and employers rely on the UMS to select applicants.

In recent A-level English literature examinations one of my candidates gained 481 marks, the slenderest of A grades. Another scored a phenomenal 600, one of two out of 8,562 candidates in English literature for that board to do so. Armed with this kind of knowledge universities can easily make the necessary distinctions without resort to A* grading or some kind of lottery. A few wised-up areas of higher education are plugged into the UMS. When in 2002 one of my candidates dropped a grade (not in the subject he wished to read at university), an admissions tutor immediately rang me up to ask how close the candidate was to an A. Was his USM mark in the 470s? Or was it nearer 420? Why should he have to ring me to find out? Why cannot universities be given this information instead of grades?

A director of studies from another school tells me of one of his candidates who was made a three A-grade offer at an Oxbridge college. He achieved AAB with marks of 560, 560 and 476 (the latter missing an A grade by 4 marks).

The college were inflexible about turning him down with a total of 1,5961,800 marks across his three A-levels. Fair enough, perhaps; but when the college was asked if it would have accepted him had he achieved three A-grades at 480, totalling 156 marks less, the reply was "Yes. That's the way the system operates." Time to change the system?

Another benefit of abandoning grades is that senior examiners need not spend days in July reading scripts in order to determine that one mark on a paper is worth a B and the next an A. In the end what matters to candidates is their total UMS score, not whether they were one mark off the next grade on a particular paper. Costly re-marks, where candidates are desperately trying to gain a few more marks in order to cross a grade threshold, could be avoided. And far from doing senior examiners out of a job, the abolition of grades will release time to re-read scripts which are deemed to be "at risk" if the school's prediction (by whatever measure replaces grades) did not match a candidate's performance.

There would still be perceptions of key thresholds; but admissions tutors and employers might more easily be able to take an overview of a candidate's performance. For instance, an offer might be made which stated that over three subjects a candidate must score, say, 1,500 marks with the stipulation that 540 must be scored in a particular subject. This would allow for immediate fine tuning when the results come out, a time when admissions tutors are far too busy to dig for the details of how good an A or B a candidate has achieved. They could see the precise achievement of those who were just below the asking price, and make surer decisions as to whom to take in order exactly to fill their places.

Everybody would benefit - students, parents, schools, examiners, examination boards, universities and employers - if grading at A-level became a thing of the past.

Neil King is director of sixth form at Hymers College, Hull

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