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Thursday, 17 January, 2002, 17:21 GMT
A-level standard 'not assured'
An international expert panel has said there is no way of being sure that the standard of A-levels has been maintained over the years.
But the experts warn against an "unyielding focus on the issue of the past".
They say the view that top grades should be limited to a very small proportion of students is at odds with the policy of raising standards in schools.
The panel published its findings amid reports that the government plans to introduce a new A* grade to distinguish the very brightest students at A-level.
The panel was set up by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) in September 2000.
Its remit was to review the quality control arrangements for maintaining A-level standards against best international practice.
Reassurance to parents
It was chaired by Professor Eva L Baker, co-director of the US National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing.
Prof Baker said on Thursday: "QCA has done a commendable job in its effort to assure the quality of the A-level examinations.
"Parents and employers should be reassured by the overall thrust of our findings."
The panel carried out numerous interviews with QCA staff, representatives of exam boards, school personnel and university staff, and reviewed documents and data.
They said the press and public had raised the question of whether standards were being maintained, with the implication that A-levels were not as difficult as they used to be.
Evidence for this came in part from the fact that more and more students were passing the exams at a higher level.
A decade ago about 12% of students were getting A grades. Last year it was almost 19%.
To check on this, the panel said, syllabuses and examinations would have had to remain constant and there would have had to be no changes in educational policy intended to raise performance.
"None of these conditions have been met as there have been numerous changes to the system," they concluded.
"There is no scientific way to determine in retrospect whether standards have been maintained.
"Therefore, attention should be placed on ensuring the accuracy, validity and fairness of the system from now on."
They proposed that short and long-term research should be done on this.
They said the QCA "should develop a strategic plan to ensure that methods can be employed to document the maintenance of standards in the future".
The report highlights the role of examiners in deciding where the boundary mark should be between grades each year.
Prof McGaw said in a BBC News interview that it was human nature to err on the side of generosity, especially when grades might determine someone's future.
On the other hand, he said that given the focus and increased resources devoted to improving standards, it would be odd if grades had not improved.
The report also pointed to a conflict between "public policy and common perception".
"In particular, the separate goals of improving schools and levels of student performance, and encouraging more students to pursue university study are at odds with the view that high A-level grades must be limited to a very small proportion of candidates," their report said.
The panel also pointed to unrealistic expectations among politicians wanting to change the system.
One of the big teachers' unions, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, seized on this to repeat its concerns about workload.
"ATL members are now deeply angry about the strains over-hasty changes have imposed on teachers and learners alike.
"Here the report is robust: The government must listen to the QCA more intently than it has before," it said.
New top grade challenged
A report in the Times newspaper on Thursday said the government was considering a new, top A* grade for the best 5% of A-level candidates.
BBC News Online understands the idea was raised in a draft version of the QCA's review of the A-level changes, but was dropped from the version published in December.
The general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, John Dunford, said heads were "very strongly opposed".
"When the A* was introduced at GCSE, it devalued the A grade, especially in the eyes of bright 16 year olds who were put under enormous extra pressure," he said.
He understood the difficulty faced by some university admission tutors in discriminating between all the applicants with at least three A grades.
"This reflects the success of schools in recent years, but should not be used as a reason to change the grading system for all students."
A spokeswoman for the Department for Education said: "Performance has improved over recent years, due to better teaching, improved standards and harder work by pupils."
"The panel said that there was no evidence of grade inflation due to commercial or political pressures," the spokeswoman said.
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