Text of statement by Mike Tomlinson, Chairman of the Inquiry into A-level Standards
Friday 27 September 2002
I was asked by the Secretary of State to inquire into the allegations about the setting of standards for A-level grades this year, giving particular attention to the grading process. Can I stress two things:
The marking process is quite separate and my inquiry has not considered this. Indeed, other than the normal requests for re-marking there has been very little concern expressed about marking;
The concerns expressed have not in their detail concerned all units at A2 level, nor all subjects.
That said, my concern has been to resolve the anxiety and concern many students, parents and teachers have expressed. Whatever the proportion of students thought to be affected, they deserve to be awarded a grade commensurate with the standards of their work relative to the overall standard for GCE A-level.
From the evidence collected, it appears that the alleged problem with the grading process this summer has its roots in decisions made by the DfES and QCA about the structure of the AS and A-level awards, the assessment model and the preparation for the introduction of the new arrangements, particularly for A2. The lack of a common understanding of the standard associated with AS and A2 units, along with the challenges associated with aggregation of the units, given all had equal weighting, played a significant part in the problems experienced by the three examination boards during the grading this year.
In relation to the grading process, there is no doubt in my mind that to varying extents the three Chief Executives felt they were being put under additional pressure to deliver outcomes largely in line with the performance of students in 2001. I am equally clear that the QCA, and in particular the Chairman, had stressed throughout the need to maintain the A-level standard and prevent 'grade drift'. The differences in perception of what was said at meetings and in subsequent letters is, however, a reality. The Chief Executives clearly passed on their perception to staff and examiners.
I am satisfied that the requirements the QCA places on the boards, and as set out in correspondence, were all proper and in line with the regulatory responsibilities.
I am equally satisfied that the actions of the Chief Executives of these boards, as accountable officers, were all done within the parameters of the Code of Practice. In this regard, they acted with integrity.
That said, the evidence strongly suggests that the actions taken with regard to the marks to be associated with the key grade boundaries (A/B and E/U) did vary across the three boards. In particular, it seems the balance between judgement based on the standard of marked work and the use of statistical information changed, and for more subjects in one Board (OCR) than in the other two. I must, however, stress that as the code of practice gives no detailed guidance on this matter, all the actions must be seen as proper. The impact of these significant changes to the marks associated with unit grade boundaries, on the overall grades at GCE A level of the students affected is impossible for me to say.
At the root of this is a longstanding misunderstanding of the difference between maintaining a standard and the proportion of candidates meeting that standard and hence deserving to be awarded a GCE A level. This misunderstanding appears to exist at almost all levels of the system, and in society at large.
My inquiry has been offered no evidence that Ministers offered any guidance on the expected outcomes of this year's A-level examinations. Nor was any present in the notes of meetings between Ministers and QCA officers. I therefore conclude that there was none.
I am satisfied, based on the evidence available, that the actions of the boards during the grading exercise arose from the pressure they perceived that they were under from the QCA both to maintain the standard and achieve an outcome which was more or less in line with the results in 2001. These two demands are not compatible, and even less so this year, given the modular structure of the award.
The most important issue is what is to be done. The major recommendation in the report is that some regrading of A2 units should be done, which if changed could influence the overall grade. No grade will, however, go down. To decide which units in which subjects, and hence how many students will be affected, are beyond my current knowledge. For that reason I am recommending the boards be asked to provide me with additional data, I will then decide not only which units are to be regraded but also the manner and extent of regrading. This will be done by end of Tuesday 1 October. I anticipate the Board or Boards involved can then proceed very quickly, hopefully by the end of next week. The inevitable question arises of how many subjects are affected. Early and very rough estimates suggest about 12 subjects (sometimes more than one A2 unit for each).
Given this I have to make clear that this is a relatively small number - though vital each student is affected - and it does not paint a picture of an examining system in crisis.
Finally, I wish to repeat that I have no evidence that anyone acted improperly. A difficult task was tackled within a framework which I believe is rather too complex and imprecise, thus capable of accommodating slightly different, but nevertheless justifiable, interpretations of what is actually required. I end here because that statement is the prelude to the second stage of my inquiry, due to report in November.
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