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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 August, 2004, 22:58 GMT 23:58 UK
Do we ask too much of A-levels?
By Mike Baker
BBC education correspondent

Mike Baker graphic
The annual A-level results are principally a matter of individual joy, surprise, satisfaction or disappointment for hundreds of thousands of students.

But, partly because they are published in the August "silly" season when news is in short supply, they have to bear the weight of intense media analysis.

This can be misleading because, so soon after the exams, the number-crunchers still do not have the full statistical picture.

So, for example, we do find out what proportion of exam entries have achieved a pass grade, but we do not know how many students have passed how many exams.

All-time high

In other words, results-day does not produce the key national performance statistic: the proportion of 18 year-olds who have achieved two or more A-level passes.

The headline figure is the pass-rate at grades A to E which has risen to an all-time high of 96%. This can give the impression that almost everyone gets an A-level. In fact, only a minority of 18 year-olds even attempts a full A-level.

There are about 630,000 students in the 18-year-old age cohort. In other words, this is the number who set out enthusiastically on their secondary school career seven years ago.

However, they are soon whittled down. Of this 630,000, only around 270,000 will have survived the educational obstacle course and attempt A-levels.

A-level students hugging on results day
The waiting is finally over for tens of thousands of students

In effect, the examination system filters out those who are not suited to advance to the next stage. The GCSE is the first big filter at age 16 and, now, the AS-level is the second.

Many commentators ask what will happen when A-level pass-rates reach 100%. They suggest that an exam that no-one fails is a worthless.

Yet, in fact, there is a certain logic to a 100% pass-rate: it shows the filtering process is working. What is the value of entering young people for an exam that they will fail?

The introduction of the AS-level in 2000 has certainly made the sixth-form less of a gamble. There is now a useful lap-time - half-way through the event - to indicate whether it is worth completing the race.

Students who do badly in an AS-level would be unwise to continue to the full A-level; it would be better, as many do, to drop their weaker subject and concentrate their efforts on the subjects they are likely to pass.

So, from this point of view, perhaps we should stop worrying about the overall pass-rate but focus instead on what proportion of young people achieve two or more A-level passes (the minimum requirement for university).

Finding the best

We will not get this year's statistic until much later but last year, for example, it was just 34%.

So, if A-levels are so easy, why are almost two-thirds of 18 year olds failing to scrape passes in at least two of them?

However, there is another issue: the difficulty employers and universities are finding in differentiating between the very best students.

This affects a smaller number of students than you might think from all the fuss about it.

For, although the proportion of entries achieving an A grade has risen to 22.4% it is still rare for students to achieve A grades in all three of their subjects.

Exam or entry test?

Indeed, only around 3% of 18 year-olds achieve three grade As. That represents just over 20,000 students.

Of course, when Cambridge University rejects 5,000 students each year who have achieved three grade As, there is a need for something else to help distinguish the super-bright from the merely very bright.

There are a number of ways to do this. The simplest would involve forwarding to universities each student's precise A-level score (students already receive this score, known as the Uniform Mark, in addition to their grade).

One reason for these continuing controversies with the A-level is that it is an exam which tries to do two things: place students in rank-order for university entrance and measure how many have successfully completed their sixth-form studies.

In other countries they have different ways of fulfilling these two functions. In the US, for example, you graduate from high school on the basis of in-school assessment and undergo a separate entrance test, the SAT, if you're competing for a place at a prestigious university.

As long as the A-level tries to fulfil both functions it will remain controversial.

We welcome your comments at educationnews@bbc.co.uk although we cannot always answer individual e-mails.

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