An easy way to make the grade?

On the day of the A-level results, Diana Hinds asks whether the increasingly popular modular style of exam is guilty of lowering standards
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The publication of A-level results today will no doubt generate, as it does every year, a fresh controversy about whether standards are rising or falling, whether the exams are becoming easier or the assessment too lax. But the rapid rise of the new modular A-level - in which the syllabus is divided into blocks and the exams spread over the two-year course (see box) - has added a further complication to these arguments.

The evidence so far - and it is very limited - suggests that students taking modular A-levels obtain better grades than those taking traditional ones. Supporters of the modular approach maintain this is because students are better motivated and have more realistic targets. Critics say pupils do better because the modular exams are easier.

So heated has this debate become that, in his interim report last month on qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds, Sir Ron Dearing, the Government's exam adviser, drew attention to the problem. Further research was needed, he said, to establish whether modular A-levels are as demanding as traditional A-levels, and to consider whether the method of assessing them is adequate.

Modular A-levels began life in a modest way in the mid-Eighties, when concern about the decline in the number of maths candidates prompted the development of a new kind of course. Early experiments proved successful in attracting more students, and the early Nineties saw a proliferation of modular courses of all shapes and sizes, with anything up to 30 modules.

A report into maths and science A-levels commissioned by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA) then found, on the basis of only one year's results, that students taking modular A-levels were obtaining, on average, one grade better than those taking traditional A-levels. The authority was sufficiently concerned to issue, in 1993, more stringent regulations for modular A-levels, requiring no more than six modules and insisting that each should be assessed at the full A-level standard, even if taken only three months into the course: no allowance was to be made for the maturity of the student.

Since then, modular A-levels have become increasingly popular with schools, The exact number of candidates is difficult to quantify, because of the method of assessment and the option of retaking modules, but in 1994, half of the syllabuses submitted to SCAA by examination boards were for modular rather than traditional courses. By October 1996, once these courses are completed, SCAA will have the data to determine whether the new regulations are ensuring a parity of standards with traditional A-levels.

In the meantime, the battle over modular A-levels is being fought largely by word of mouth. Schools that like them say modular courses help because students know how they are progressing, and this encourages them and makes them work harder. Modular exams remove the intense pressure of the "all or nothing" exam at the end of two years, and are also a preparation for regular working patterns in employment. The courses are more flexible, and students can retake modules if they choose to.

"The beauty of the system is that you don't have to do the exams at any one time, but when you're ready," says Heather James, assistant chief executive at the Northern Examinations Board.

Some teachers complain, however, that students neglect other subjects when preparing for a modular exam. There is a danger, too, of "teaching to the exam" throughout the two years. George Donaldson, deputy head of Latymer School, a grammar school in north London, believes that although the modular exams are a helpful way of reinforcing work, they are "tending to make the sixth form a terrific grind for the students, and a less pleasurable experience".

Another argument against them is that students are not sufficiently mature in the lower sixth to do themselves justice in an exam. Some subjects, too, are better suited than others to the modular approach: a physics student, for instance, might be examined on a block of work on light, and later on sound, whereas a student taking an arts subject or a foreign language would be more likely to do well if not examined until the end of the two years.

John Marks, secretary of the education standing group at the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies, said he approved of some modular maths A-levels but was much less happy about science.

"Modular and traditional A-level exams should be of the same type, but we are beginning to see separate styles of questions. In some of the modular papers, the questions are shorter and rather scrappier, and look to me more like GCSE questions.

"Many teachers I talk to say they think the modular questions are easier. They say that students are getting better grades, and then they look a bit shamefaced about it."

Critics fear that if examination boards move much further towards modular courses, the status of the A-level could be threatened. But until there is more evidence, the boards, together with SCAA, are doing what they can to monitor the situation and ensure standards are maintained.

"There is a perception that modular A-levels are easier," said a spokeswoman at SCAA. "But having qualifications that are seen as a soft option is not doing students any favours. Modular A-levels must carry credibility, and because they are so popular, it is very important that we do not allow them to become a way of watering down the rigorousness of the A-level."

Traditional vs modular A-levels:

Case study: Fiona Marshall

'If you didn't do as well as you wanted, you could do it again'

"I don't like exams at all, I get quite nervous, and that's why I prefer doing modules," says Fiona Marshall (left), who this summer completed her A-levels at Latymer School, a co-educational grammar school in north London.

Latymer introduced modular A-levels in maths and media studies several years ago, and last September added courses in physics, chemistry and business studies. Fiona took modular A-levels in maths and media studies, as well as a traditional A-level in geography. She hopes to study psychology at university.

"I liked the maths A-level because you could focus on one part of the course, and then move on to another part and concentrate on that. We did two exams last Christmas and the other four this summer. It was fine doing the exams early because you knew that if you didn't do as well as you wanted to you could do them again.

"I did quite well - I got nine out of 12 in one - but I wanted to do better so I took that one again. Most people retook, apart from the ones who got 12 out of 12. In media studies we did projects during the course, and the only exams were at the end, when we had to write a few essays. We'd practised these during the course, and did mock exams earlier this summer.

"Geography was hard, though. You had to cram everything in, and learn it all in one go. I would have preferred not to have had just one exam. I think that's the A-level I have done least well in."

Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid

Case study: Ruwantha Katrunaratne

'If you are not so good in one area, you can compensate with something else'

Ruwantha Katrunaratne (right) describes himself as a "late bloomer", and therefore someone who would definitely not have benefited from a modular A-level course. This summer, at Latymer School in north London, he took traditional A-levels in chemistry, physics and biology, and maths AS level; he did not have the option of modular A-levels. He hopes to study medicine.

"I am one of the youngest in my year, and in the first year of A-levels you could say that I was a bit slow to catch on. I did most of my work in the second year. "As you get nearer to the exams at the end of the course, things start to click more, they get easier. It's a question of maturity, really. The thing about modular A-levels - and this is what my friends say who have done them - is that people tend to find it hard because they have not had the time to mature.

"The lower sixth are doing modular science courses now, but what the teachers are saying is that the marks haven't been up to scratch. Also, people skip off school to revise for modular exams and their other subjects suffer.

"I am very happy with traditional A-levels. In science, the exams are split between practical, comprehension, theory and multiple choice, so it doesn't all hang on one thing. If you are not so good in one area, you can still compensate with something else."

Photograph: Kalpesh Lathigra

What is a modular A-level?

l Modular A-levels differ from traditional A-levels in that they divide the syllabus into sections or modules, which can be examined at different times throughout both years of the sixth form - for instance, in January and June - rather than all in one lump at the end. Like traditional A- levels, the exams are externally set and marked.

l There can be up to six modules, and each exam carries a minimum of 15 per cent of the final mark, apart from the last one, which is 30 per cent. In some subjects, the final exam includes a "synoptic" element, with overview questions on the whole of the syllabus.

l Students can sit the modular exams at any point during the course, and they can also retake modules during the course if they are not satisfied with their mark.

l Modular A-level courses are now running in maths, physics, chemistry, biology and English. From September, economics, geography, politics and foreign languages will also be available.

opinion: Tony Mooney feels proud but not complacent

The palms will be wet, the knuckles white and the nails bitten. All the symptoms of "A-level Thursday" will be there this morning as thousands of 18-year-olds make their way into their schools to find out the examination results that could shape the rest of their lives. Some will be ecstatic and others will be in the depths of despair as a result of what the clinical examining board read-outs tell them. However, among all the uncertainty and nerves, one thing is for certain - the overall A-level results will be the best ever and the annual green light will be given for right-wing newspapers and policitians to air their views about examinations becoming easier.

The percentage of candidates obtaining grades A, B and C at A-level has increased from 43 per cent in 1989 to slightly more than 50 per cent in 1994. The percentage of 18-year-olds taking and passing A-levels is rising by the year, so that we now have almost twice the number going to university that we had six years ago. The recent final report from the National Commission on Education has set a target for 2000 which requires that 65 per cent of young people by the age of 21 will achieve two A-levels or the vocational equivalent. Is all this to be celebrated, or do the right-wingers have a point when they argue that we are debasing the currency of our 18-plus examinations?

There is little doubt in my mind that the rapid improvement we are seeing in exam results, at all levels, represents a real and profound improvement in the ability of our young people and the way that they are being taught. Our improved standard of living, diet and health care since the war have led to each generation being taller, stronger and faster than the previous one.

Athletics world records are being set at levels never before contemplated and we look on in wonderment. So why should we cry foul when we see from examination results that our children are cleverer than we were?

It is not just that our children are becoming more clever. They are also learning and being taught more effectively. The advent of the GCSE examination in 1988 did as much as anything to unleash the talents of our young people. Course-work and modular examinations that allowed students to acquire marks as they worked through their courses greatly improved motivation. Pupils found they could learn independently over two years, rather than having to wait for the "big bash" at the end of the course.

But despite the real and measurable improvements in the performance of our young people, there are problems that need addressing. The research suggests that although the correct use of grammar and spelling have not declined since the last war, neither have they substantially improved. In our commendable and successful drive to give schoolchildren a much broader range of skills, we may have not paid enough attention to this area of learning.

So while we have much to celebrate as a nation as A-level results become available today, we cannot afford to be complacent. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Britain in 1992 had the lowest rate of participation of 17-year-olds in full-time education in the European Community. In addition, only about a half of those 16-year-olds starting out in two-year courses gain the qualifications for which they have been studying.

Much remains to be done in post-16 education. We can rightly congratulate our A-level students on their successes but we cannot condone the fact that a large minority of youngsters are being left out.

The writer is a secondary head in London.

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