Richard Garner: Why grades may tumble next year

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The Independent Online

The youngsters who yesterday notched up a record number of top-grade passes in their A-levels deserve congratulations for their achievements.

However, Jerry Jarvis, managing director of the Edexcel exam board, deserves credit for raising the issue of what needs to be done to restore the credibility the exam had in bygone years.

A start has been made by introducing the new A* grade next year. It will give university admissions tutors the vital evidence they need to select the brightest candidates for the most popular courses.

In addition, the questions are to be made more searching next year. They will be more open-ended in an attempt to tease out pupils' critical thinking skills.

Both of these may help, but even together they will not be the whole answer to the problem. One reason for the year-on-year rise in A-level passes is that – as teachers have become more familiar with what is required for the exam – they can more easily coach them to obtain higher grades. It will not be long, therefore, before the percentage getting A* grades begins to rise. More consideration must be given to ensuring that A-levels retain the ability to help the selection process for university courses.

The two "add-ons" to grades – giving admissions staff pupils' marks and details of their grades in each of the four modules that go to make up an A-level – will help. Apparently, though, the module grades can already be made available to admissions tutors, but few seem inclined to use them. If that is the case, it seems there may be a certain slackness on their part in using all the tools at their disposal.

Recalibrating the grade boundaries to make it more difficult to obtain an A grade could have been a solution some years ago when university admissions tutors first raised the problem. However, it would be an idea at present to wait and see how effective the introduction of the A* grade is before embarking on another reform so soon.

Perhaps the new tougher A-levels of 2010 are enough to restore the exam to its "gold standard" position and see off the challenge from rival qualifications, such as the Pre-U – which is on more traditional lines, eschewing coursework.