Extending the grade

January 14, 2000

Nicholas Tate asks the universities to say what they want from the new A levels.

We have been talking about changing the curriculum for as long as most people can remember. At last, in September, the biggest set of changes since A levels were introduced in the 1950s will come on stream.

There will be a new AS qualification, a key skills qualification and smaller-sized advanced general national vocational qualifications; all AS and A levels will have a modular structure; and, for high attainers, there will be Advanced Extension Awards. The main aim is to encourage more students to follow a broader programme of study.

Some have recently suggested that A levels no longer distinguish between the able and the very able student. With more than 20 per cent of candidates obtaining an A grade in some subjects, there are genuine concerns about how well the A level discriminates at the top end of the attainment range.

Universities such as Oxford and Cambridge now find that A levels do not provide them with the information they require. Having abandoned their entrance examinations, and facing complaints about the subjectivity of interviews as a determinant of admission, they have a problem. Hence the recent interest in a United States-style scholastic aptitude test (SAT) and in the finer discrimination provided by the international baccalaureate.

In my view, there are better solutions to this dilemma closer to home. There are two possible ways forward, and we are keen to have universities' views on both. First, should universities receive applicants' actual A and AS-level marks as well as their grades?

The new A and AS levels will all be assessed on a uniform mark scale, allowing much finer discrimination than current grades. These marks will be available to examination centres - as already happens in modular A levels - and from next summer candidates will be entitled to see them, together with their marked scripts. Applicants who have done particularly well - say, at the top end of the grade-A range - are bound to want to draw this to universities' attention. Should the information therefore be made available as a matter of course? The question is not as simple as it sounds.

The finer the reporting scale, the less one can rely on small differences in rank order. This is a particular problem in a system with different awarding bodies and different specifications. Moreover, a lot of effort currently goes into scrutinising scripts on A-level grade borderlines and marks within grades will not be subjected to the same "borderlining" procedures. Placing pressure on students to show they have obtained a "good" A grade might encourage them to narrow their efforts.

These are serious reservations, but given that the information is going to be available anyway, how should it best be handled?

The second solution to universities' selection dilemma is through the new advanced extension awards. These are qualifications based on A-level subject criteria but testing conceptual understanding and critical thinking to a higher level. They are being developed, for first examination from 2002, in association with higher education subject specialists. These awards will both provide greater discrimination, using a distinction and merit classification, and encourage the most able to take their A-level studies further.

We are confident we can develop examinations that will not require extra teaching. The issue, however, is how best to ensure that all schools take up the option of the advanced awards for suitable students. This will be essential if we are to avoid these awards going the same way as S levels - now mostly the preserve of independent schools and hence largely useless as a selection measure.

The answer to this question, as to many other questions about the reforms, will depend in large part on the signals sent back to schools and colleges by higher education.

Nicholas Tate is chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

Should A-level marks be made available to universities and would they help in the selection of students?

Email us at soapbox@thes.co.uk

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