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.