Opinion: More stars, less smoke, fewer mirrors

The Government and universities must come clean about the A* A-level grade before the whole examination standard is undermined, writes Geoff Lucas

March 16, 2009

On 8 February, an article in The Sunday Times said: “The Government has stars in its eyes – and it is proving confusing. It has introduced a new A* grade at A level to help universities distinguish between top candidates. Then, last week, it instructed those same universities to ignore the new grade for several years.”

Less than a week later, official confirmation came from the Government’s second highest ranked official at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, Adrian Smith, who candidly said that universities “won’t touch” the new A* grade, to be introduced in 2010, for fear of recruiting too many sixth-formers from independent schools.

The avowed reason, as set out in DIUS’ implementation plan for the “National Council for Educational Excellence Higher Education mobilisation strand”, is that there is “no evidence yet upon which to assess whether the new A* grade can be predicted with accuracy”. Universities must therefore wait at least three years for the outcome of an evaluation by the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service of the accuracy of A* predictions. If they do, no A* offers will be made for admission to university until at least 2013 – coincidentally, the year in which the Government intends to review A levels and their future place in its brave new world of diplomas.

It would be easy (and premature) to criticise universities for appearing confused and uncertain how best to respond. Desperate for objective ways of discriminating between the very best students, and with application ratios of 10:1 for places on the most competitive courses at the most selective universities, many have commissioned or introduced their own admissions tests. While these are largely a response to the Government’s vacillation in introducing the A* in the first place, when ministers lost their nerve in introducing the entire Tomlinson package of 14-19 reforms, the longer it takes to use the grade, the more entrenched such tests will become. No one, in either the independent or maintained sectors, would relish such a scenario. Nor, it should be said, does anyone wish deserving students from either sector to fail to win the university place of their choice on the basis of an underprediction by their schools.

What no one seems to have pointed out so far is that the Government has already introduced a safety net of its own, designed to deal with such an eventuality. Known as the adjustment period or “trading up”, from this summer all universities are expected to hold back a number of places for students who achieve better than expected grades, and who could, on the basis of what by then will be actual rather than predicted results, have secured a place at an arguably better university. Such places will be open to all students, regardless of the school or college they attended. In short, trading up would allow universities to include the A* as part of their offers from the start.

So far as schools’ and colleges’ ability to predict A-level grades goes, previous Ucas studies suggest that independent schools are relatively good at this – partly, of course, because it is hard to overpredict three grade As. With the introduction of the A*, this may change, but there is a genuine disincentive for independent schools to inflate predictions, namely parental and student expectations. Teachers’ overpredictions coupled with students’ underachievement is a lethal cocktail that is best avoided in a world of litigious parents.

No one envies the dilemma that universities face. Caught between the rock of “standards” and the hard place of “widening participation”, most universities will opt for the former, whatever they say publicly. Indeed, anecdotal evidence from a recent Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference survey of this year’s round of Oxbridge applications indicates that the A* is already with us. Several schools reported offers requiring 0 or more uniform mark scale (UMS) scores (90 per cent-plus) on A2 modules, the closest proxy under the current system for the A*. The challenge for universities this September is simply to come clean and make explicit whether or not they will use the A* and for which courses.

The challenge for the Government, in particular its new Ambassadors Group set up by DIUS and chaired by Steve Smith, vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter, is also to be open about its motives. There may be good reasons for delaying the use of the A* when making offers in the first year or two. For example, the more open-ended question papers are new, although for most subjects there is the experience of Advanced Extension Awards to draw on.

More worrying, perhaps, is the fact that not enough is yet known about the variability in A* awards across different subjects and awarding bodies. What evidence there is, both within the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority and the independent sector, based on “modelling” of A* grades over the past two years, suggests that there is far more reason to fear disadvantage and injustice resulting from the choice of subject or board than from unreliable grade predictions.

Moreover, those who remember the A-level grading fiasco of 2002 might also argue for more time to allow the new grade to be properly established and evaluated before using it in such a high-stakes context as university admissions. One has to point out that few notes of caution have been sounded by the Government about other far more untried and untested qualifications, such as its own 14-19 diplomas.

So, my plea is for less smoke, fewer mirrors and a great deal more honesty. With trading up in place to deal with potential underpredictions, no good educational reason for not using the A* has so far been offered by either the Government or universities. Little wonder, then, that political motives are suspected. As The Sunday Times article puts it: “At every stage of our state system, political considerations override pupils’ interests. The damage this has caused is incalculable.”

Up until now, pupils have largely been ignored in this debate. Yet it is their expectations that have been raised by the A*. Although some would probably be happier without the extra pressure, experience of the A* at GCSE level indicates that many pupils like the additional challenge, and rise to it. At A level, examination board figures show that under the current system, over half of all As awarded are in the range of 480-510 UMS (ie, only just making the grade). The new A* effectively sets the hurdle at the equivalent of 540 UMS (0 on the A2). QCA modelling suggests that the new A* will be awarded to about 6 per cent of all A-level entries, identifying the top 25 per cent of A-grade students in each subject. Given these statistics, it seems likely that predicting an A* will be much easier than most other grades. Therefore, the main reason for delaying its introduction looks highly spurious.

If the Government really wants pupils to aim high, and to be rewarded for the extra “stretch and challenge” that it claims the most recent A-level reforms will provide, then it needs to back the A*, and sooner rather than later. If not, by 2013, admissions tests will be what really count when it comes to higher education, not A levels. Doubts will then be cast on the need for A levels at all. Or is that the real agenda behind the A* saga? First, ditch the A*, then find an excuse to bury A levels themselves. Now that would be devious.

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