Tuesday 8 September 2015

What's Wrong With A Levels?

For all the work done by JCQ and QCA, there’s a nasty secret about A levels: they aren’t fit for purpose.

I am not one of those who thinks that current A levels are easy - on the contrary, in a ‘blind’ comparison of coursework from ten years ago and from last year, one of our departments has demonstrated quite clearly that there has been a raising of the bar in at least one subject, even before the new specifications are introduced. Nor do I think that A levels produce a ‘treadmill mentality’ among students - that’s done by teachers teaching to the  test, which is something schools have to avoid through their culture (anyone who says that moving to the IB, or Pre-U, automatically eliminates that might be kidding themselves, but they shouldn’t kid anyone else - all tests can be taught to).

The problem with A levels is more fundamental. We try to come up with the most accurate measurement system we can, on a scale of 0 to 100, and then we divide this into just 7 grades - A* to U. This produces a clumsiness that is unfortunate. It also encourages pupils to appeal, and this is where the system falls down terminally. To understand why, we need to go back and, as Simon Sinek would say, ‘start with why’.

By and large, the purpose of A levels is to grade, sift and divide students so that they are able to attend the higher, further or in-work education course to which they are best suited. Universities base their offers on grades, causing huge pressure at the margin between one grade and another. This means that all students who can afford to do so have an enormous incentive to challenge any mark which places them just below the grade boundary: someone with 318/400 needs two extra marks for an A grade, and is most unlikely to lose the 39 marks that would take them to a C grade. In fact, it’s even possible that this student could go up to an A* with two extra UMS points. So, at the margin, one UMS mark can be worth up to 40 UCAS points, whereas many UMS marks are worth nothing. Any student close to the boundary for a higher grade has an incentive to appeal, whatever their mark, and their original expectation, since all the risk is on the upside.

This year 208 A level exams were sat at the school at which I work. Of these 13 have since been regraded, potentially making or breaking a university place. That’s a failure rate of 6.3 % for the exam boards, just from those which have been reassessed, which is a comparatively small proportion of the 208 A levels taken. The highest revision to one module has been an eye-watering 27 UMS marks. (Actually the average result of a re-mark at our school is an upward move of only +2 UMS*). The grading system creates a huge reward for the candidates’ (schools’?) efforts to ‘game’ the system. And, guess what? Doing so is expensive, and so only those that can afford to do so will.

Not only is the system clumsy and open to gaming, it clearly can select less well qualified candidates. An applicant for Medicine scores 600/600 in Biology and Chemistry, but only 479 in English Literature gets no place, while one who scores 480/600 in all three subjects does. Many such scenarios can be found. Higher education courses need to be for the best qualified for that course; at the moment, A levels will be sending the wrong pupils onto courses.

So what should be done? I suggest A level grades be abolished entirely, and replaced with a UMS scale of, say 400, in every subject. Universities could make offers based on this UMS scale. If all A levels were scored out of 400, Cambridge might insist on 1080 from three A levels (equivalent to A*A*A*), Durham 960 (AAA), Birmingham 840 (BBB), Within these there is scope for greater subtlety - Cambridge might insist on 1200 - a step above 3A*s. The crudeness of the grade’s indivisibility would be overcome.

Best of all, basing offers on UMS points means pupils would have to think carefully before appealing any mark, because any downward revision to their mark could be costly, and we could avoid the use of the appeal mechanism to game the gradings (by those who can afford it).

Then, of course, exam boards would need to make sure that aberrations, like the revision of one paper by 27 UMS points, don’t occur.

*I am reassured it's positive - at least it means my colleagues are appealing where their professional judgement is that the mark should have been higher, and not just because it's close to the boundary for a higher grade.

May 2016 Edit - Ofqual's changes to the criteria for appeals make the appeal of this post even more urgent and important.

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