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Select Committee on Education and Skills Third Report


THE BACKGROUND TO THE A LEVELS DEBATE

History of A level

  3. To understand the current A level examination process and to evaluate the general criticism about lowering of standards that the A level system has received in recent years, it is necessary to understand the evolution of the A level and its grading system.

NORM REFERENCED A LEVELS

  4. A levels were first awarded in 1951.[2] Until the early 1960s A levels were awarded only at the grades of pass and distinction. In 1963, the Secondary School Examination Council [SSEC] issued guidelines for a 5 level scale, indicating roughly the proportions of candidates to be awarded each grade: 10 % A, 15 % B, 10 % C, 15 % D, 20 % E and a further 20 % allowed an O level pass. One of the major problems with this approach was that it specified proportions of candidates and therefore the band of marks in a grade might be very small. (In 1982, the difference between a D and a B could be as few as 8 marks in one subject, 15 marks in another.)[3] This system ensured that only a relatively small number of students would achieve grade A. This also could allow the standard of an A grade to fluctuate each year, as it varied according to the level of attainment of the cohort.

  5. This system is sometimes described as norm referencing. In a norm referenced system, the assumption is that the numbers taking the exam are sufficiently large to ensure that standards will not vary greatly from year to year; therefore a given percentage will achieve an A grade, another given percentage a B grade and so on. Norm referencing was set up as a way of identifying the most successful candidates, but it is an unfair means of assessing the performance of schools and, perhaps more importantly, of individuals.[4]

CRITERION REFERENCED A LEVELS

  6. In 1984, the Secondary Examinations Council[5] advised that grade boundaries should be based on the partition of the mark scale rather than on proportions of candidates, in a move towards a criterion referenced system. Examiner judgement was to be the basis for the award of grades B and E, with the remaining grades determined by dividing the mark range between these two points into equal intervals. This system was introduced in 1987 and remained in force until the introduction of the new curriculum in 2000.[6]

  7. Criterion referencing sets standards against declared criteria of performance - the so­called 'can do' statements. A driving test is criterion referenced. Achievement of the driving certificate is set simply against performance and not against an annual limited number of certificates available in a competitive environment. The difficulties in criterion referencing lie in the establishment of the criteria. It is relatively straightforward in areas like science and mathematics, but not at all straightforward in areas such as humanities and social science. It was pointed out to the Committee that nearly all the subject areas that were recommended for reassessment in Tomlinson's interim report were in humanities and social science areas.[7]

  8. A levels are currently neither fully norm-referenced nor fully criterion-referenced. Ms Tattersall, Director General of AQA, told us that the current system used "a soft criterion referencing ...it is a system which does reward attainment at the more general level than some very specific criteria would do, and I think it is a system which has served students exceedingly well over the years".[8]



2   The Story of the General Certificate of Education (GCE) - Advanced level - Colin Robinson, September 2001. Commissioned by Statistics and Information Management Team; Communications and Knowledge Management Division; QCA. Back

3   The Story of the General Certificate of Education (GCE) - Advanced level - Colin Robinson, September 2001. Commissioned by Statistics and Information Management Team; Communications and Knowledge Management Division; QCA. Back

4   Ev. 130 Back

5   Predecessor of the QCA. Back

6   Ev. 130 Back

7   Ev. 131 Back

8   Q.213 Back


 
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