LETTER : Today's A-levels fail to make the grade

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The Independent Online
From Mr J. Baxter

Sir: There is a confusion at the heart of the current debate about A- level standards. The recent expansion of higher education has raised the proportion of school leavers going to university to almost one-third. Before the expansion took place, the proportions gaining the crucial A- level grades A-C were fairly stable. In effect, a relative standard of assessment was used.

Since the number of 18-year-olds has been falling, such a system of assessment could not support the expansion of higher education planned by the Government. Either the proportion gaining grades A-C had to be increased, or the universities had to accept lower grades.

Understandably, the Examining Boards, with, one suspects, the encouragement of the Government, chose the former course. If further expansion is to take place,the inflation of grades will have to continue, although, for demographic reasons, the number of 18-year olds will also increase from now on.

In order to justify the rise in the proportions gaining the higher grades, the Examining Boards are maintaining that standards have risen - the argument, in other words, is based on absolute criteria.

Whether or not this is the case is another issue, and certainly one worth pursuing. What is no longer in doubt, however, is that the move from an examination system designed to select a proportionate few to one aimed at selecting students for a mass Higher Education programme, means that an 'A' grade, for example, now no longer represents the same as an 'A' grade some years ago.

Yours faithfully,

J. Baxter


18 August