Exam board head denies 'dumbing down'

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The Independent Online

The head of Britain's exam boards insisted yesterday there had been no "dumbing down" of A-level standards as demands grew for tougher marking following another rise in A-grade passes, due to be published this Thursday.

The head of Britain's exam boards insisted yesterday there had been no "dumbing down" of A-level standards as demands grew for tougher marking following another rise in A-grade passes, due to be published this Thursday.

In an interview with The Independent, her first since taking office, Dr Ellie Johnson- Searle declared: "We can have confidence in the system."

Dr Johnson-Searle, director of the Joint Council of Qualifications, the umbrella body for the exam boards, said she was "disappointed" with critics who dismissed rises in the pass rate as worthless, claiming the exam has become easier.

She was speaking in advance of this year's results, which are set to show a rise in the pass rate for the 22nd year in succession.

The number of A-grade passes is also set to rise again from a record 21.6 per cent last year to nearer one in four this year.

This is already leading to demands for tougher marking and reforms to make it easier for universities to select the brightest candidates from the plethora of youngsters obtaining A-grade passes.

David Thomas, the chief executive of the Careers Research Advisory Centre, said the percentages obtaining A-grade passes "are now starting to get rather alarming".

The result was that the A-grade at A-level now covered an "incredibly wide" ability range compared with 10 or 20 years ago. "This is dumbing down in that sense," he added. He called for exam boards to be tougher in their marking standards.

However, Dr Johnson-Searle said: "We in the exam boards are absolutely certain that standards are being maintained."

Her theme is likely to be echoed by ministers later this week who will also insist there is no evidence to suggest questions have become easier.

Dr Johnson-Searle pleaded with critics to remember the estimated 250,000 youngsters who will be receiving their results.

"We've all been through the experience of A-level day a number of times but for the people who get their results this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

"We are dealing with the administration of statistics and there is a danger we can lose sight of that."

She also told university admissions staff that the information was already available for them to weed out the brightest students for popular courses at elite universities.

"We talk about the number of students getting A-grade at A-level but they don't all get As for each module," she said. "Only five or six per cent do."

Every candidate has details of what grade they have scored in each of the six modules and all the university admissions staff have to do is ask them.

However, exam board officials are holding discussions with Ucas, the university and colleges admissions system, to see if the results can be made available to the universities.

Meanwhile, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Government's exams watchdog, yesterday distanced itself from comments from one of its senior officials who said it would be wrong to scrap A-levels.

Jonathan Ford, the managing director of the National Assessment Agency - a subsidiary of the QCA charged with monitoring exams, was quoted as saying A-levels should stay.

"I question whether Tomlinson [Mike Tomlinson - the former chief schools inspector heading an inquiry into exam reform] could possibly create anything better than A-levels," he told a Sunday newspaper.

A spokeswoman for the QCA described the comments as "misleading" and said they did not accurately reflect its thinking.

It supported the interim report of the Tomlinson committee, which recommended replacing the A-level and GCSE system with a new diploma.

She added that the organisation would insist that any new diploma would "retain the strengths of the current A-level system".

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