Absolutely good, good; relatively good, better

January 24, 2013

A parallel set of A-level marks that compare a candidate’s performance with that of other pupils should be introduced to allow universities to identify top students, an academic has suggested.

Jonathan Clark, Hall distinguished professor of British history at the University of Kansas, said the current system of A levels did not allow university admissions officers to “discriminate between the good, the better and the best” because too many students achieved top grades.

Speaking at a seminar organised by Politeia, a centre-right thinktank, Professor Clark said each student should be given two sets of A-level grades: an “absolute” mark that indicated the candidate had hit certain standards and a “relative” mark that indicated how well they had performed against other students taking the exam that year.

“You might get an absolute A grade for history but only a relative B grade,” he told the seminar, entitled GCSE, A levels and Assessment: Questions for a Better System?, in London on 16 January.

This method would allow some groups, such as employers, to see if a candidate had reached a required level of study, while universities could use relative marks to select the best students, he argued.

This dual system of marks would resolve a “tension” between the two approaches to assessment, which had “fought against each other throughout the history of the [examinations],” he argued.

“Every school exam [must] provide an absolute measure of a candidate’s achievements, which are judged against previously published criteria,” he said.

“But we also need a relative measure of a candidate’s performance. Every exam is a passport to the next stage in a student’s career - the examination has to be able to weed out the better and the best.”

The British academic, a former fellow of All Souls College, Oxford and Peterhouse, Cambridge, said the system would also halt grade inflation because examination boards would be unlikely to award wildly different marks for absolute and relative grades.

“It will keep examiners honest,” Professor Clark said.


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