All change for A levels?

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The exams watchdog has proposed a major overhaul of the structure of A levels. Pete Henshaw delves into the consultation document and gauges the reaction from the education sector.

Proposals to abolish January examinations and limit the number of re-sits students can take form a key part of plans to overhaul A levels.

Ofqual, the examinations watchdog, also wants universities to play a key role in the design and “sign-off” of new-look post-16 qualifications.

It is inviting, too, a debate over whether or not AS level qualifications should continue.

A consultation document has been published outlining the proposals, some of which could be introduced as early as September 2013 – although the introduction of the new qualification specifications would most likely be staggered between 2014 and 2018.

The proposals come after Ofqual recently published two reports into A levels, looking at the views of higher education, teachers and employers and also comparing the system to those of high performing nations around the world. 

The design of A levels

The consultation highlights that during Ofqual’s research, universities “expressed concern” over new undergraduates’ abilities in academic skills – citing problems with critical reflection, problem-solving and the ability to study independently.


In response to this, Ofqual wants to put universities “at the centre of A level reform” and proposes requiring exam boards to get “formal sign-off from a number of respected universities” for each qualification.

The consultation states that exam boards must show that each A level “has the support of at least 20 UK universities, at least 12 of which are respected in the specific field of study and/or from those deemed to be leading research institutions”.

It adds: “(Universities) should have a particular role in determining what should be taught and assessed in each subject (content) to give them confidence that young people have acquired the appropriate knowledge and skills required to access undergraduate courses in general or in particular subjects.”

A crack-down on the use of multiple choice questions is also signaled in the proposals. It proposes that all A levels should “use a variety of appropriate question types, including questions that require responses to be produced through extended writing (including essay questions)” and that the qualifications should have at least 60 per cent external assessment for each element.

Furthermore, it states that multiple choice should only be used when it is a “valid form of assessment” and it must not outweigh the marks derived from other forms of assessment.

An end to modules

The proposals, if approved, would see the end of modular A levels. Currently, both the AS and A2 are split into, usually, two modules each but Ofqual wants to scrap this system, introducing instead two-year linear qualifications.

The consultation states: “There are concerns that (the modular system) can make it harder for students to make connections between different topics within a subject. Evidence from the national research is that the modular structure creates significant problems in practice for both universities and teachers.”

The move would mean that, for two-year linear A levels, assessments could only be taken at the end of the course and only in the summer.

The consultation adds: “This would mean that assessments could be taken in the summer at the end of the first and the end of the second year of study.” 

Limited re-sits

The plan to end modular A levels will mean that re-sit opportunities are minimised. The consultation adds: “In a traditional two-year course of study, students would have the opportunity to re-sit the AS exam only once, with no opportunity to re-sit the A2 element. If a student wished to re-sit their A2 element, this would have to take place in the following summer.”

Ofqual’s chief regulator, Glenys Stacey, said: “For all A levels we propose to end January assessments and to allow only one re-sit opportunity; we think that this will rebalance the emphasis of A levels onto the learning rather than the assessment. All papers would therefore be taken in the summer.”

The future of AS

On the issue of AS levels, Ms Stacey said that Ofqual “remains neutral” but that the education sector is split as to their value.

She said that while some believe that AS increases the breadth of the curriculum and supports transition from key stage 4, others worry that it has a negative impact on teaching time and results in too much focus on examinations at the expense of wider extra-curricular pursuits.

The consultation outlines three options:

  • Removing the AS qualification and returning to a linear two-year course of study with all assessment at the end.

  • Making the AS a standalone qualification but where the results do not contribute to A level.

  • Retaining the AS and its relationship to the A level (but making changes to assessments and re-sits as outlined above).

Grading

The consultation also seeks views on possible changes to the way new A levels might be graded. It says that this should be considered to better support university selection and “appropriate differentiation”, but also to stop inappropriate comparisons with attainment under the current system.

It states: “It may be appropriate for new A levels to be identified by a different grading system to prevent a two-tier system during the period of reform – avoiding any invalid comparison of students’ attainment from year to year.”

Timetable

Proposals to reform the assessment structure and reduce the number of re-sits could be implemented as soon as September 2013, Ms Stacey has said.

In her foreword to the consultation, she writes: “We will manage the roll out of the reform programme carefully over the coming years; experience has shown that rushing qualifications reform is highly risky. 

“For A level courses starting from September 2013, we propose to change the assessment structure for all A levels, to reduce the number of assessments and re-sits.”

Full revisions of the qualifications would then be rolled out over the following few years, continuing until 2018.

Ms Stacey added: “We hope that for some subjects, new content can be identified and new A levels of sufficiently high quality can be developed in time for first teaching in September 2014.”

Reaction

In issuing the consultation, Ms Stacey urged schools, colleges and employers, as well as universities, to respond to the proposals.

She added: “Teachers’ views are particularly important, both in response to this consultation and in the development process, because we want to make sure that A levels provide a good, cohesive curriculum.”

Teachers this week warned that the high stakes on A level results for pupils led to teachers being pressurised into teaching to the exam rather than focusing on wider skills.

Adrian Prandle, education policy advisor at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said: “Yes, A levels have become too narrow and need to test a wider range of skills and allow time for more extended study, group study and coursework. But while A levels remain such a high-stakes qualification teachers will continue to be under pressure to teach to the test rather than developing critical thinking and independent thought.”

He also objected to universities being given the final sign off on qualifications: “A levels need to test more than just the ability to go to university; they need to test students’ skills and help prepare them for the world of work and daily life as well as to study further.”

School leaders meanwhile urged Ofqual to give awarding bodies enough time to design and test the changes. Brian Lightman, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “A deadline of September 2013 to have the new specifications ready means that, once decisions have been made, awarding bodies have very little time to work with universities to implement the changes. 

“The last time there was a significant change to A levels we saw major problems because there was not enough time allowed for the design and the changes were rushed. If this happens again it could cause problems for the exams in 2014.” 

On the modular issue, Mr Lightman added: “We need a debate about the pros and cons of modular A levels. It is simplistic to say that a course done in modules is easier than one with terminal exams. Nearly all university courses are modular and I have yet to hear criticism that they aren’t rigorous enough.”

Elsewhere, awarding body Pearson said it fully supported the involvement of higher education.

A statement said: “In addition, engagement with employers is necessary to ensure we build qualifications that meet the demands of the evolving global economy. We are pleased to see that the importance of their view on qualifications is represented in the plans.

“We believe that the increasing tendency towards shorter and more numerous examinations has, for some subjects, led to too much focus on testing over learning. We do however see a continued case for the AS level, as it offers pupils the chance to study a broader range for longer, and supports the university selection process.”

Further information
The consultation runs until September 11 and the document can be found atcomment.ofqual.gov.uk/a-level-reform/


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