Tuesday, 3 July 2007

A B- idea

The government has proposed the introduction of a new A* grade for A-levels, in response to the rising number of A grades being awarded. The cut-off for the A grade will remain at 80%, but candidates will have to get 90% in order to receive an A* grade.

Personally, I welcome this proposal: it is something I have wanted to see for a long time. You see, at present A-levels are marked out of 600 - 300 marks at AS level, and 300 marks at full A-level. If one gets 480 marks out of the 600, one gets an A. Now, at present universities have no way of knowing whether an applicant is an almost unequalled genius getting virtually 100% on each paper he sits, or whether he is merely scraping past the 480 threshold by a couple of marks. And, there is a very considerable difference between someone getting 80% and someone getting 90%, and even between someone getting 90% and someone getting 99 or 100%.
The problem is exacerbated by the existence of AS-levels, which were introduced in 2001. My year-group was one of the first to have AS-levels as part of our course (aren't I youthful?), so I have first-hand experience of how schools are able to manipulate the system to ensure that as many of their pupils as possible get high grades. At the moment, you see, you are allowed one free retake of any of your AS modules. That means that if, on retaking, you get a lower mark than you originally got, then the original, higher, mark is the one that counts. AS-level exams are taken at the end of the Lower Sixth (i.e. in May or June), and one may retake them the following January. The results are available in March.
So: exams that can be retaken while you're still at school; results that will come out six or seven months before you start at university; and, no matter how badly you do, no adverse consequences. For anyone who looks like falling just short of their desired grade, be it A, B, or C, it's ideal. And it benefits schools too: they're always desirous of pushing themselves up the league tables, by hook or by crook, and improving their A-level averages is a good way to do that. Thus, in my school year, virtually everyone retook at least one subject. I was the only pupil in one subject who didn't, one of only two in another, and one of three in a third. This out of around sixteen or seventeen per subject. And I was strongly encouraged by my history teacher to retake the one history module (of three) in which I didn't get 100% (bragging's allowed: it's my blog, and anyway, history was my best subject).
The third re-take is problematic. One generally does it one year after one's original attempt, when one is busy taking or revising for one's final A-level exams, which of course poses a distraction. Furthermore, if you do worse on the third attempt than on your two previous attempts, then that third attempt nonetheless counts, for the purposes of your final result. Notwithstanding that, teachers do encourage some pupils to have a third bash at their weaker AS modules.

So, as a result of the system, an A-level student under the present system is guaranteed two bites at the cherry, and may get a third. In addition, there is no way of distinguishing between someone scraping a bare 80% A-grade (or a bare 70% B-grade, and so on), and someone getting 99% (or 79%, for a top B grade, etc).

The particular problem with this is that universities recruit on the basis of grades, rather than total marks. So, for example, anyone wishing to read law at one of our top universities is expected to have three As at A-level. And, it is impossible for universities to distinguish candidates who cruise to 90%+ grades without retakes from candidates who, with two or three retakes, scape a bare 80%ish A. Which makes the job of selecting students that bit more difficult, particularly given that all law schools, with the exception of Oxford and Cambridge, do not hold interviews. Ten leading universities (and Manchester Metropolitan University, for some reason unknown to me) have agreed a test for applicants for undergraduate law courses, to supplement A-levels, but really, this just serves to prove the inefficacy of the A-level exams.

For the above reasons, the introduction of a new A* grade is to be welcomed. It may not separate the wheat from the chaff, but it will at least separate the Waitrose wheat from the Lidl wheat. However, the proposed A* grade is not to be regarded as a catch-all solution. It appears increasingly evident, that A-levels are increasingly easy; making them rather more difficult would surely be beneficial. Equally, reducing the capacity for candidates to retake subjects, in the hope of climbing to their desired grade, would surely have the effect of making A-level results more meaningful. The government's proposals would represent an improvement, but even then, there would still be problems. So, the proposals should prove beneficial, and are worth a B- grade, but until the other improvements I've suggested are put into force, the A grade will remain elusive.

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