Above is a link to an article questioning the rationale of changing the A level system from the modular system we’ve had since 2000 (and which existed in parts before then) back to a system that prevailed for many years until the mid-1990s, of assessing A level students at the end of two years of study.
The article here suggests that the DFE did their research and found that ditching the AS level as an indicator of academic progress is justified by the accuracy of GCSE grades as a predictor of future success at degree level. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. But, is this really the point? My understanding was that the reforms proposed by Michael Gove and the coalition government were intended to make the A level “more rigorous” and return it to the “gold standard” it used to be (assuming you believe A levels no longer are a gold standard).
Do poorer results mean that standards have been raised?
One thing is certainly true, assuming that the assessment criteria remain the same, the marking is applied to the new system as it was to the old system and that the course content remains broadly the same (potentially big assumptions, but lets go with it for now), the number of students achieving the highest grades will go down under the new system. This will then be heralded as a success in certain quarters. There will be much talk of the “end of dumbing-down” and a “toughening up” of the A level system. It will make an almost impossible job for university admissions departments a little bit easier as fewer students will make their offers and perhaps fewer students will go to university overall. This will also be considered a good thing in certain circles, with derisory comments made about degree programmes referred to as “Mickey Mouse” in their content and worthiness.
However to consider what has happened here, is to consider the purpose of education. One can define “a good education” in many different ways and there will be several different opinions as to what constitutes a “good” education. Nevertheless, whatever, philosophically, you consider to be a good education, it is a fact that: in schools and colleges throughout the country, students are studying A levels, those A levels have a content, the content is taught to them by teachers and one measure of the success of those students is how well and how much of the content they have managed to learn and apply.
So, again applying the assumptions before regarding assessment criteria, marking standards and content, if students get lower marks in the their exams, one conclusion and certainly the one that I would draw, is that fewer students learned less material on their A level programme, they could express themselves less well and were less well able to apply knowledge learned during their programme of study. Therefore we have succeeded in “reforming” an education system so that less is learned by fewer people. In other words we claim to have “raised” standards because our results are worse and our young people don’t know and understand as much. A somewhat backward conclusion wouldn’t you say so?
Now no doubt there will be noises made about “the cream rising to the top” but this is a flawed argument, yes, the very best students will still do well and they would be rewarded, but the existing system (although not perfect, I will admit) helps students with potential to fulfil that potential and be rewarded for their effort and their learning “journey”.
When you are 16, two years is a long time!
It is a long two years. A levels are traditionally taught on two-year programmes when children are aged 16-18 and make the step into adulthood. A very formative time. At this age personalities, skill-sets, outlooks and motivations are still being developed. Some very good students will be committed to a steady two-year learning journey. However some equally good ones will not quite manage this and will delay preparation for exams until those exams are approaching at the end of their two years of study. As a result, they won’t learn as much!
“IT’S THEIR OWN FAULT!” People will cry. “They should have worked hard for two years not just the last three months!” A good point and one with some merits, but an unrealistic one and one that does not recognise the needs, requirements and different learning styles of today’s young people. Sixteen year olds need to learn how to learn, they need to make mistakes and learn from them, they need to hear something more than once and have a chance to try new things, including new ways of learning and studying. The modular system allowed for this perfectly. If you are tested on something once and get a certain result, then you are tested on it again at a later date and get a better result then a logical conclusion to me is that you have learned something!
My students are wonderful!
As an A level teacher, I see this all the time. My students develop skills, they build their knowledge, they develop links and understandings between different areas of the A level syllabuses and indeed between their different subjects and quite often, by the time they take their final exam, they have learned an awful lot not only about biology (my subject) but about learning, about education (with a small ‘e’) and about themselves. I fear that the removal of the modular system will remove much of this subtlety and the best “educated” will be deemed to be those who have crammed best for their final exam and who are good at doing exams rather than those who have learned the most or, dare I say it, those who are the best educated.
RIP January exams
When we lost the January exam session, we lost a big benefit of the modular system. In my experience, re-sits in January were successful. Students more often than not did better in January than they had the previous June. Why? They were motivated by their previous result, they learned more material, they matured as people they could see a value in working harder to help them on to the next stepping stone towards their ultimate goal. For some it even established exactly what that goal was, it being absent previously. The coalition reforms reduced this opportunity with the dropping of the January exam and the new system arriving in 2015 will remove it altogether.
By the way, the re-take system was not just for students who failed first time around. Many of my students with a “low A” would re-sit papers in January to get a “higher A” that would set them up nicely for their next exam session. I was always impressed that these young people were prepared to put more pressure on themselves in this way to help them achieve their ambitions. Now all this pressure will come at the end of a two year programme. One shot. One chance.
When the changes come in, teachers, students and universities will adapt, but I fear that, ultimately, standards will fall, not rise and this will be Gove’s legacy to the A level system.