Richard Garner: A day for congratulations - and concern at a tarnished qualification

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The Independent Online

This year's 250,000 A-level candidates deserve congratulations for the record results they achieved yesterday.

As Dr Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority - the Government's exams watchdog, said yesterday, there is no concrete evidence that the exam has been dumbed down.

It is different, yes, from 50 years ago - making it impossible to do a like-for-like comparison. That said, the second point to be made is that yesterday's results will add urgency to the review of A-levels that is being carried out by ministers.

Several ideas are floating about: the introduction of an A* grade at A-level; allowing universities access to the six different module grades of every A-level; allowing them access to the marks of individual students; making questions harder (either for all candidates or introducing a separate paper with hard questions, which can be taken by high-flyers); and introducing an extended essay project to allow candidates to develop their creative and thinking skills.

The latter is going to happen. From 2008 it is expected that the extended essay project will be compulsory. That, coupled with giving universities access to the marks (so that admissions tutors can tell whether a candidate has achieved an A grade with 71 per cent or 90 per cent) should be enough to aid the universities in their mission. The problem with handing over the module grades is that it would be possible for a candidate who has achieved outstanding marks in three modules but just failed to gain an A in the other three to be better than one who has just scraped through to an A in all six.

As for the A* grade, it may not be necessary if the marks can do the job by themselves.

When it comes to making A-level questions harder, many teachers have argued that it would be fairer to make the proposed harder-questions paper available to all candidates. Otherwise, they argue, it will depend on individual schools whether pupils are entered for the separate paper. This could end up benefiting the independent sector at the expense of bright pupils in struggling inner-city schools.

Another difficulty with making questions tougher is that this would not look good politically; the minister in charge would be seen to be presiding over a decline in the A-level pass rate.

The debate over whether A-levels have become easier may be a sterile one . That does not mean, though, that an exam whose fitness for purpose has decreased as universities struggle to identify the brightest candidates should not be made more stretching for pupils.