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EDITIONS
Thursday, 21 November, 2002, 11:44 GMT
Attempt to clarify what A-levels are
exam room
Schools have complained about confusion
The exams watchdog has sought to clarify the standards required of A-level and AS-level candidates - the issue at the heart of this summer's fiasco over A-level grades.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has also come up with a revised code of practice for exam boards, intended to rein in their chief executives.

It was confusion over standards that lay at the heart of this summer's problems, according to the independent inquiry by Mike Tomlinson - who called the system "an accident waiting to happen".

Mr Tomlinson is working on the second part of his inquiry, to do with how the standard of A-levels can be maintained and their credibility secured.

What is an A-level?

The QCA's draft statement on AS and A-level standards repeats the formula that many have found problematic.

It says an A-level "is divided into two equal parts: the AS and the A2."

Despite this equality, "the AS covers the less demanding material in an A-level course. The A2 covers the more demanding material."

The level of demand of the AS examination is that expected of candidates half-way through a full A-level course of study.

Grading

The level for an A2 reflects the more demanding A-level material, including higher-level concepts and a requirement to draw together knowledge and skills from across the whole AS and A2 course.

The combination of candidates' attainments on the relatively less demanding AS units and relatively more demanding A2 units leads to an award at A-level standard, says the QCA.

The final A-level grading is based on the marks from the two parts.

There are separate grade boundaries for AS, as a free-standing qualification, and for AS + A2, for the full A-level.

Built-in check

The QCA's chief executive, Ken Boston, said his new code of practice for exam boards set out how examinations should be conducted and provided the criteria against which the boards were held accountable.

Following Mike Tomlinson's initial recommendations, it was being revised to clarify everyone's roles.

"The revised draft of the code states that each grade boundary should be set using professional judgement, and this judgement should reflect the quality of the candidate's work, informed by the available statistical evidence," Dr Boston said.

"It specifies that the accountable officer must consult the chair of examiners if the recommended grade boundary is being reconsidered."

Intervening

The "accountable officer" is in practice the chief executive of each exam board.

Each year they tweak some of the boundaries between exam grades at a late stage in the results process.

This year the chief executive of the OCR board, Ron McClone, intervened more than normal and very often did not even tell the chair of examiners for the subject concerned that he had done so.

In future he will have to - and if the examiner does not agree, then the QCA has to be told about it, as well as the governing council that covers all the exam boards.

"This makes the awarding process more transparent and allows any issues relating to grade boundaries to be clearly stated and resolved quickly," Dr Boston said.

The alleged A-level grades manipulation

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