The new "modular" A-levels, which were taken by up to 50,000 students this year, have raised motivation and have allowed students to drop out early if they are unlikely to pass, the boards say. Under this system, candidates who fail can retake as many times as they like.
Critics of the system, who want 100 per cent of A-level marks to be gained through a final exam, say it will contribute to "grade inflation" by making it easier for candidates to pass.
However, under plans to be announced later this week, candidates may need more than good A-level grades to obtain a place at university.
The Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, working with government curriculum advisers, wants candidates to be tested on numeracy and literacy. It also wants to find a way of measuring self-motivation, team-working and communication skills.
The move reflects complaints from universities and employers that the brightest sometimes lack the basic skills to make the most of college education, or fit into the workplace.
Tony Higgins, Ucas chief executive, said : "By the end of the century, it could be that universities will not look at students who do not have the appropriate key skills qualifications."
The plans tie in with Sir Ron Dearing's proposed reforms of post-16 qualifications, encouraging greater parity between academic and vocational courses. But it has not been decided how "key skills" would fit into the new system. "They could be incorporated into the curriculum and measured as part of existing exams, or there could be separate tests," Mr Higgins said. Sir Ron has proposed a single exam in key skills at AS-level - half an A-level.
By the end of the century, scores in these "key skills" and other achievements would be held on an electronic database. "If we are seriously looking at the development of lifelong learning and the accumulation of credits for learning experiences, a national database could contain profiles which would be very useful to employers," Mr Higgins said.
The plans might help to defuse the annual controversy over whether A- levels are getting easier, because the examination would not be the only criteria for getting a college place.
Exam boards say the modular A-level pupils may get higher grades because instead of taking a two-year course and then sitting exams at the end, candidates take written tests as they go along. The final exam accounts for only 30 per cent of the marks while coursework takes up a maximum of 20 per cent and the interim tests 50 per cent or more.
The new-style exams, which are marked by the boards, have been introduced by ministers and taken by about a quarter of candidates doing maths, English or science subjects this year.
With more than 700,000 candidates taking A-levels, any rise in the pass rate, which is already going up by about 1 per cent each year, is likely to be slight.
However, examinations officials say that while there are fewer high grades under the new system, there are fewer failures as well. Figures compiled by the University of Cambridge Board, which did some modular courses last year, have confirmed this.
A north-south divide still exists in staying-on rates for 16-year-olds, the Labour Party said last night. While six out of 10 pupils in the North stay on at school, 78 per cent do so in the South-east. Bryan Davies, a Labour education spokesman, said the disparity could undermine efforts to develop a high-skill, high-tech economy.Reuse content