Improving assessment at A level

The English attach a lot of importance to their public exams.  For students, the results determine university or further education entrance, and access to apprenticeships or jobs; for schools, A level grades are key indicators of school performance; for Head teachers, movements up and down results league tables can make or break careers; and individual teachers are subject to performance reviews based on public exam results.  With so much riding on public exam results it is no wonder the marking and grading processes are kept under such scrutiny by the exams regulator (Ofqual), Heads’ associations, and the media.

Nationally between 1 and 2% of public exam grades are changed on appeal (officially known as a results enquiry).  This seems like a low error rate, but in reality the number of erroneous grades are likely to be higher as not all candidates or schools can afford appeals and in any case only those results that appear too low get appealed….over-marking does not attract complaints!  At The Perse, on average between 15 – 20% of the results we appeal lead to an upgrade.  This is a concerning error rate which hides marked differences between subjects, with relatively few grade changes in maths and the sciences and significantly more in English and the humanities.  Subjective, essay based subjects are more difficult to assess objectively.

These difficulties are compounded by the oft-cited difficulties the exam boards face in securing a pool of sufficiently qualified and experienced examiners to mark papers across all subjects.  Any falling away in the quality of the examiners would obviously have a direct impact on the standard and accuracy of marking.

At the individual student and family level ‘wrong’ results can be devastating.  Every year a few A level students will miss their university offers because of erroneous grades.  By the time the grades have been corrected on appeal, their chosen university may have filled all of its places forcing the student concerned to look elsewhere or take an enforced gap year.

So how to reduce the mistakes in the exam system?  I have a simple, practical suggestion – start the A level exams a month earlier.

With new linear A levels there is more teaching time.  This means A level courses can be finished by Easter of the Upper Sixth, and A level exams could occur one month earlier than at present in early May.  This single move would bring many advantages to students, teachers and schools and make the public exam system better:

  1. By moving A levels earlier they could be sat alongside IB and International A levels in one common assessment slot.
  2. Earlier A levels could allow Boards to release ‘provisional’ results in early July (about the time IB results are published).
  3. ‘Provisional’ A level results could be scrutinised by schools and candidates with appeals being lodged during July.  Final post appeal A level results would be issued to students, schools and universities as currently in mid August.  Universities would thus make their admissions decisions on confirmed A level results rather than on grades still subject to change.
  4. As teachers would finish their A level teaching at Easter, they should have time to join the examiner work force and mark A level scripts in school during May and June.  School should be required to provide a certain number of appropriately qualified teachers as examiners and provide a school base for them in which to examine.  The number of teacher examiners provided could be linked to the number of pupils sitting the exams.  Any saving in examiner recruitment costs could be passed on to schools in the form of lower examination charges.  Using A level teachers in this way would create a stable and well qualified and experienced examiner workforce better able to mark accurately.  Marking during the school day should also improve assessment quality as it would replace the current practice of tired teachers marking at ‘silly o’clock’ either before or after the school day.
  5. From an A level student’s perspective revising during Easter (when the weather is poor and the hay fever season yet to begin) has to be better than revising during late May and June.  An earlier end to A levels would also allow students more time between school and university to travel, gain work experience, and earn money.

The move to linear A levels creates an opportunity to revisit the exam timetable.  By bringing exams forward by four weeks the whole process could be significantly improved at no additional cost.  It seems like a ‘no brainer’ to me.


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