Resits undermine A-level standards

Allowing students to resit examinations favours more affluent students and turns grades into questio

This year's A-level results -- "record", once again -- will doubtless reignite the annual discussion around a decline in standards. It's a debate that the Education Secretary, Michael Gove, has pre-empted with his proposal to scrap modular A-levels and revert to linear courses, in an effort to restore the "gold standard".

While there very clearly is a problem with the current system, hence the need for introduction of the A*, reverting to linear A-levels would be to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Both teachers and top universities have repeatedly said that resits, not modular exams, are the major cause of grade "inflation".

Modular A-levels can be fit for purpose, in terms of learning and as indicators for universities, if resits are scrapped.

A survey by Civitas last summer revealed extraordinarily high levels of resits happening at A-level -- and their significant impact. A nationwide sample of 150 heads of sixth form was asked to estimate how many resits their last A-level cohort had sat. Seventy-one per cent of teachers judged that over 50 per cent of the entrants at their school had done at least one retake during their A-levels. Sixty-nine per cent of teachers then estimated that over 50 per cent of these students had gained a higher overall grade as a result of resitting.

In short, the impact of resitting is huge. And all-importantly, the bulk of resits are on the less challenging AS papers, rather than the more in-depth A2 papers. Overall grades are being boosted by performance on easier content -- providing a potentially misleading picture of students' grasp of a subject.

A large number of teachers interviewed expressed grave concerns about resitting -- concerns based primarily on three problems. The first was that, because of the misleading picture conveyed by resitting AS exams, universities are having to set their own tests in order to identify students' true levels. As one West Midlands head of sixth form put it:

They [students] go to the wrong universities due to resits: if they retake lots of times they bump up their mark, but if they can't even do an AS first time round how are they fit for university?

The second concern was that a key function of the modular system -- continuous assessment and thereby continuous motivation -- was being eroded by the opportunity to resit. "If they couldn't do resits students would work harder and do better the first time," commented a head of sixth form in London.

The third, and perhaps most concerning, issue raised was the potential inequity of the resits. While resits line the pockets of exam boards, the cost for students potentially allows schools with a more affluent intake to take more resits, and therefore get better results. As one head of sixth form in East Anglia commented:

Resits are inequitable; there are financial implications with the resits, can they stump up the cash?

Cambridge University, which obviously has a vested interest in high-calibre A-levels, has defended the modular A-level. Its position is also that it is the resit, not modularisation, that is threatening standards. The benefit of the modular A-level is that it allows students to convey their knowledge and understanding of the course -- a desired outcome -- rather than their ability to perform in an exam.

Spreading assessment over four tests moves away from the "sudden-death" element of having all the exams at the end of the two years. However, resits have led to a scenario where all too often the entire focus of the course is preparation for examination. This turns grades into questionable indicators. So, rather than the dull and generalised lament about "standards", let's get on with addressing the specific weakness in hand.

Anastasia de Waal is director of family and education at Civitas.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.