Exams watchdog is blamed for failing to protect A-levels

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The Independent Online

The Government's examinations watchdog put the integrity of A-levels at stake by failing to act over the growing number of candidates obtaining A-grade passes, an independent report into exam standards has said. The study, which was set up by the watchdog itself, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), concluded that the failure may be be responsible for universities devising their own tests to help them select the brightest candidates.

The Government's examinations watchdog put the integrity of A-levels at stake by failing to act over the growing number of candidates obtaining A-grade passes, an independent report into exam standards has said. The study, which was set up by the watchdog itself, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), concluded that the failure may be be responsible for universities devising their own tests to help them select the brightest candidates.

The report, by a committee headed by Dr Barry McGaw, director of education at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said that the "integrity" of the A-level exam itself may have been put at risk. University admissions staff say it is impossible to choose the best students for popular courses because more than one in five scripts are awarded an A-grade pass.

"It seems to us unfortunate that the QCA was not able to deal more decisively since the utility, if not the integrity, of A- level results was at stake," said the report.

Entry to some popular courses - particularly medicine and law - now involves tests of thinking skills, designed by the University of Cambridge Local Examinations Syndicate.

In addition, a separate government inquiry set up to monitor A-level standards and admissions to higher education has canvassed the use of US-style aptitude tests. It said too much time was being spent worrying whether the exam had been "dumbed down" in recent years.

The report stated that speculation was pointless because subject syllabuses altered over time.

"Over the longer term, it makes little sense in many subjects to ask whether examination standards have been maintained since the subjects themselves have changed so much," the report said.

It claimed that the English public and the media "expect too much of the public examination system at school level", adding that they demanded answers to the question of whether standards had fallen "with a degree of precision which cannot be delivered.

"If debate about whether performance standards were rising or falling had not been so unhelpfully dominant in recent years, the failure of A-level results to serve adequately the selection function for universities might have been addressed much sooner and by the suppliers and not the users," it said. "Results in A-levels at the top end need to be more discriminating than the current A/B grade distinction."

The report also delivered a warning for the future by stating that papers marked online were often marked more harshly than traditional scripts. Exam boards are currently experimenting with online marking with a view to dealing with most papers that way in the future. In the pilots, examiners have been made responsible for one question, rather than for the whole of the script, as happens with the traditional practice.

The report praised the QCA's monitoring of exams, saying: "No examination system at the school or other level is so carefully managed."

Dr McGaw's committee, though, described it as "not faultless and not without room for improvement".

As a result of the inquiry by the former chief schools inspector Mike Tomlinson into exam reform, ministers are now considering whether to introduce a new A+ and A++ grade at A-level.

At the same time the Tomlinson report's plans for a new diploma to replace the existing GCSE and A-level system has been criticised by one of the country's leading exam boards, the OCR.

The body said yesterday that the value of the current exams had to be protected, adding: "Employers and parents must be able to readily understand the relationship between existing qualifications and the diploma."

It also cautioned against giving a separate final grade for the diploma, saying it would be "completely unworkable".

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