A-level reforms based on 'flawed' data will deny university

The Department for Education research concluded that degree results could still be predicted just as accurately without AS-level results

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The Independent Online

One in five teenagers could miss out on a place at a top university as a result of ministers relying on “flawed” data for their exam reforms, according to researchers.

The decision to stop AS levels counting towards full A-level passes means universities can no longer use the results in assessing candidates for places on their courses.

But an analysis of the evidence for the reforms shows that as many as 18.5 per cent of 88,000 students, whose results were surveyed by the Department for Education, could now miss out on the offer of a university place – especially if they wanted to go to one of the UK’s most selective universities.

The schools minister, David Laws, commissioned the research to see if GCSE results were as reliable as AS-levels – the only evidence of sixth-form performance – in predicting a student’s likely degree.

The DfE research, which looked at students who graduated in 2011, concluded that degree results could still be predicted just as accurately without AS-level results – saying that GCSE results were in fact marginally better at predicting whether a student would get a 2:1 or above.

However, Professor Ron Johnston, head of geography at Bristol University and one of the academics who have carried out the new study, said the DfE’s research was, “to say the least, unimpressive”.

“The students included in the analyses were not representative of all who graduated in 2011 – many of those doing science and engineering were excluded, as were all of those doing medicine,” he said.

The analyses also included nearly 3,000 students whose GCSE or AS-levels results were not registered – and just over 5,000 for whom there was no information about their degree classification.

“Those analyses included a little under 8,000 observations for which at least one of the key items of information was missing – some 9 per cent of the total,” says the report. Its research into the DfE evidence indicates that 18.5 per cent of the students who fared better in their AS-levels than GCSEs “might not have received an offer from a university, especially one with high entrance standards, based on their GCSE performance alone”.

“As one in five students may be disappointed because improvement in the following year cannot be taken into account,” said Professor Johnston, “a policy based on such evidence seems backward- looking – whatever the ‘intellectual’ arguments for abolishing AS- levels and returning to the pre-1990s A-level model.”

A spokeswoman for the DfE said: “This data looked at the GCSE and AS grades of more than 88,000 students in 151 higher education institutions across England. Universities already look at a number of factors before deciding on offers – including GCSE results – and have long complained that the old A-level system prioritised constant examination at the expense of learning.

“Returning A-levels to single exams will make sure students gain a deeper understanding of a subject and put an end to the test treadmill in the sixth-form – something many teachers and universities dislike.”