Wednesday 11 August 2021

The "A" level bonanza

This morning's revelation that 44.3% of candidates have achieved A* or A grade passes in this year's Advanced Level examinations is almost bound to provoke a serious re-asesment of this school leaving examination, normally taken at the age of 18+ (but many mature students also take it: there is no age limit. I obtained my "B" in French when well into my 60s. )

I predict a re-assessment, not to belittle the performance of this year's candidates: given the problems created by the Covid lockdowns, school shutdowns and lack of face-to- face stimulus it seems something of a miracle that they've learned anything at all.

Well done, "yoof" of 2021, and well done the teachers, who i believe have done all this assessment for no extra pay, although the examination boards still charged the "full whack" per candidate.

However, this level of "top quality" bears no relationship to the significance of obtaining such  a high grade in earlier years.

The current system of General Certificate of Education at Ordinary (O) level, normally taken at age16+, and Advanced (A) level two years later,  was introduced in 1951. In those high-and-far-off times the majority of pupils, including many very able ones, had left school by the age  of 16 and, of those who remained to take the examination, barely 10% would receive a Grade A pass.  Two passes at the lowest grade, E, were sufficient to "Matriculate" or qualify to enter university.

 Thus those with three or four Grade A passes (A*s were not introduced until quite recently) were the potential Nobel Prize winners and Regius Professors at Oxbridge.  This was because for most of the first 50 years or so the examination results were "norm referenced" and forced to conform to a variation of a  "Normal Distribution" in which only a small percentage revived the highest grades, the bulk gained the middle grades and the tail failed or maybe scraped through with an E. There were minor adjustments each year to account for the perceived minor variations  in difficulty of the examinations in each subject from year to year.

In the past 30 years (maybe more) there has been greater emphasis on "criterion referencing":  what exactly can the candidate do?  Solve quadratic equations, predict chemical reactions, write accurately and lucidly in German, as well as hearing it and speaking it,   analyse Jane Austen intelligently, understand Modern Monetary Theory (MMT - I don't)?

  If the candidate can do it she/he gets full marks.  

This, combined with the modern developments in teaching and learning aids and communications,(10 minutes on Google rather than hours in the library to ascertain facts, Duolingo for leaning languages, even pictures in the text books) have led to a massive increase in levels of performance.

It is and always  was a myth to suppose that examining or assessment is a highly rigorous, consistent and accurate process.    We assume that candidate x who received a C in Chemistry is as good at Chemistry as  y who received a C in French is a good at French  and z who got a C in Music.    But has that any validity?  

And clearly we can no longer assume that the candidate  who received a modest C in Economics way back in the 70s is inferior  to one  who had her or his A* confirmed this  morning.

One of our problems is that we place too much reliance on the significance of this one "end of school" examination.  We expect it to show three things:

  • that the candidate has reached a certain level of competence in the subject;
  • that the candidate has the capacity (or not) for further study in the subject;
  • that the candidate is (or isn't)  methodical, hard working, capable of meeting deadlines  and altogether a highly reliable person.

The collapse of the comparably and even relevance of high "A" level grades gives us a good opportunity to assess these qualities, and perhaps others (likelihood of wining the "X" factor, getting on to "Love Island" or becoming a responsible parent or even prime minister) separately.

Post script (added 13t August)

My friend and former colleague David Pennycuick has Emailed to add:

It is not only academic standards which are important.  The education system needs to do much more for those who have practical rather than academic skills, for example by encouraging apprenticeships with the intention of relieving the shortages of skilled tradesmen (for example plumbers and electricians).

Further consideration needs to be given to the gulf between the private and state sectors. There are now few if any state schools able to compete with the best private schools. Certainly the charitable status of private schools needs to be reviewed, although of course major closures of these schools would put considerable pressure on the state system in terms of the number of pupils to be accommodated.  But closing Eton might reduce the risk of having future Prime Ministers as bad as Johnson.

 I couldn't agree more.

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