Exam board’s mea culpa?

Possibly the Daily Telegraph regards this interview with Andrew Hall, AQA’s chief executive, as a confession, the largest of the exam boards admitting their role in lowering A-Level standards. In particular, apparently according to Hall, although he isn’t quoted directly here, unlimited resits have led to grade inflation: last summer (2011) resits pushed the number of A-grades from 19% to 24%. This interview, in fact, contains very little that Hall has not said before (for example, here, with some indication of resit numbers).


The problem appears to be as follows. Curriculum 2000 introduced two-tier A-Levels made up of exams at AS (Advanced Subsidiary) after one year, and then at A2 at the end of the second year. Each component is worth 50% of the total, but final grades might be dependent – some would say heavily so – on students resitting first-year exams in the second year. On the face of it, then, one can see the logic of Hall’s suggestion that AS weighting should be reduced from 50% to 25%. The AS is no more than a 17+ exam; designed for the typical 17-year-old, it should be taken at the end of Year 12, after which time it becomes obsolete. Such reasoning is tied to notions of fixed ability, and this might help explain why there is already a weighting in favour of A2: the A* grade will only be awarded when students score 90% in A2 exams, no matter how well they have done in AS exams.


My response to this argument is twofold. Firstly, to say that students resit ‘easier’ exams to ‘unfairly’ boost their final grades is to ignore the possibility that, with a limited amount of time available, these resit students lose marks they might otherwise have gained in A2 exams. The view that AS resits produce grade inflation, then, rests on the assumption that the individual’s score on A2 units will remain steady, with or without resits. However, one should consider the possibility that, if they prepare properly for resits, they will likely devote less time to study at the higher level and, as a consequence, do less well in A2 exams. In effect they swap marks in one exam for marks in another.


It might well be the case that, in this trade-off, the resit marks gained exceed the A2 marks lost; if so, there might still be a case against grade inflation. This brings me to my second point. Here, as an example of what Vygotsky called the zone of proximal development, one might consider the possibility that improvement in AS resits is based, at least in part, on the experience of having worked on A2 units for one term (if resitting in January of the A2 year) or longer (if resitting in the summer). Students improve marks in resits because they resit while studying other units at a higher level; and their achievement, described thus, is quite valid.


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