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Friday, 16 August, 2002, 23:11 GMT 00:11 UK
A-levels 'still precious'
Why is the annual publication of examination results such a tetchy business?
I don't mean amongst the students. Watch them receive their results and you see joy, relief, disappointment and occasionally distress.
And it always seems to be produced by itching the same old sore: even before the results envelopes are opened, the scab is picked off old wounds from earlier arguments over whether exams have got easier.
This year's sudden leap in the overall pass-rate (the number of entries achieving at least an E grade) to 94.3% triggered complaints from the usual doom-mongers.
Someone calculated that if this year's rate of improvement was maintained, the pass-rate would reach 100% by 2004. What is the use, said some, of an exam which no-one fails?
But this response ignores the evidence. Just because almost every full A-level entry receives at least a grade E, does not mean everyone in the age group gets even one A-level, never mind the traditional university requirement of three.
The figures we get on results day do not tell us how many passes each student has got. All they tell us is the success rate of each exam entry. These are quite different things.
A-levels are still a fairly precious commodity. What proportion of 18 year olds would you think end up with at least three A-levels?
I'm not talking about three A grades but a modest three E grades or above. 90% perhaps? You might think so from the talk about the exam that cannot be failed.
Well, the answer is just 26%. Just one in four 18 year olds will achieve three bare A-level passes at grade E. Is this really an exam that is so easy it should be scrapped?
You might say this is just playing games with statistics. We know that less than half the age group even attempt full A-levels, but for those who do it's so easy everyone gets good grades.
Not really. We don't have this year's figures yet but they won't be very different from last year. Then, just counting those 17 and 18 year olds who stayed on in school or college to sit A and AS-levels, the average achievement was just below three grade Cs.
So A-levels are still difficult. They still represent a real challenge even to the brightest 50% of the age group.
For employers and universities they still act as a filter which sorts out the academic from the non-academic.
And isn't this partly why we have examinations: to sort and filter by differentiating between different levels, and types, of achievement. The A-level still does this.
Now, once we can move on from the annual, knee-jerk "exams are too easy" response, we can get onto more worthwhile questions.
For example, how did the authorities get it so wrong at AS-level maths that they succeeded in causing the A-level entry for that subject to plummet?
So, last year the AS maths barrier was set higher than for other subjects. Not surprisingly the failure rate was higher than for other subjects. Quite understandably, students voted with their feet.
A-level maths entries were down 12% this year and applications to read maths at degree level have fallen by a similar proportion. This is serious.
On the wider front we should also be asking whether "Curriculum 2000" (the changes which brought in the new half-way AS-level exam) is achieving its aim.
It was supposed to broaden post-16 studies. The aim was a good one.
England, Wales and Northern Ireland were highly unusual in the western world in expecting academic students to study just three subjects after 16.
The idea of the changes was that students would take four or five subjects to AS-level in their first year of study and, only then, narrow to the traditional three subjects at full A-level.
It is still too early to say exactly what is happening, but there are signs that while a broadening of study has been achieved at AS-level (hence the 25% rise in exam entries) it has not worked at full A-level. Indeed full A-level entries were down by 6%.
It could be that students prefer the option of doing more subjects at the lower level at the cost of dropping some at the higher level.
This may be canny of them. The university tariff system - which awards points to exam grades to provide numerical entry criteria - may unwittingly encourage this.
After all two AS-levels attract the same points score as one A-level. This needs looking at.
AS-levels 'the limit'
We may also find that the new A-level system is taking us towards a two-track approach.
Some students may increasingly see AS-levels as the limit of where they want to go.
They might leave after two years of sixth form with five or six AS-levels but no A-levels.
Would this be a bad thing? I'm not sure it would. They might still go on to university, especially if the government is aiming for 50% of young people to experience higher education.
No-one should pretend that six AS-levels are the same height of achievement as three A-levels.
But that does not make them a worthless qualification.
The examination system needs to provide different routes, at different levels of difficulty, to students aiming in different directions.
Judging today's examinations on the same basis as 30 or 40 years ago, when A-levels were aimed only at a small elite, is just not productive.
It is what the exam system is doing for today's needs that matters.
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