Memorandum submitted by The Assessment
and Qualifications Alliance (AQA)
This memorandum is AQA's response to the invitation
from the Select Committee to submit evidence in connection with
the Select Committee's inquiry into Testing and Assessment. The
memorandum offers background information on AQA and then focuses
upon those of the questions posed by the Select Committee in its
published terms of reference on which AQA is particularly well-placed
to express a view. In doing this, issues raised by some of the
other questions posed by the Committee are also addressed.
The essence of this submission is an argument
for choice in Key Stage 4 and post-16 qualifications offered by
competing Awarding Bodies. There should be choice between modular
and non-modular examinations; choice as to the use of properly
controlled teacher-assessed coursework; choice between GCSEs,
A-levels, Diplomas and Baccalaureates. Effective regulation is
required in such a system to maintain public confidence and ensure
that young people are treated fairly. However, there are no insoluble
technical problems to achieving this aim.
As in other areas, competition between Awarding
Bodies drives both technical and educational innovation and helps
to reduce the burdens and costs of the assessment system as a
whole. Again, there are no insoluble technical problems about
ensuring comparability of standards in such a system and no evidence
of any consistent problem in this respect at present.
Most importantly, choice in qualifications is
consistent with the widespread desire to move learning in a more
personalised direction and what we know about the varying ways
in which different young people learn and are best motivated.
1. AQA is the UK's leading Awarding Body and,
as a long-standing provider of high quality general qualifications
at GCSE and A-level, the awarding body of choice for schools.
We are a non-profit making educational charity so all our income
from examination fees goes into running and developing our examinations
and other services to schools and colleges. We place great emphasis
on engagement with our stakeholders in educational centres to
ensure we are fully meeting their needs. As the UK's main Awarding
Body for general qualifications, one of our primary roles is to
engage with our regulators and policymakers on issues of curriculum
design and wider educational and assessment policy, utilising
our educational research department which has a considerable international
reputation. One of our priorities is the effective use of innovative
technology to facilitate and modernise assessment techniques.
AQA is pioneering the introduction of new methods of electronic
assessment and marking that increase accuracy and reliability
while maintaining and enhancing the integrity of the examination
Why do we have a centrally run system of testing
2. The National Curriculum tests at Key Stages
2 and 3 are centrally run by QCA but at Key Stage 4, and thereafter,
competing Awarding Bodies provide a choice of assessments and
qualifications. Including AQA, there are three General Qualification
Awarding Bodies in England, one in Wales and one in Northern Ireland.
All five of them are able to offer qualifications in England,
Wales or Northern Ireland.
3. In the broader sense of assessment in support
of the teaching and learning process, we do not have a centrally
run system, of course, and there is much good practice carried
out by teachers in their own classrooms, some involving material
or tests purchased from publishers and other suppliers, some constructed
by themselves. Assessment by teachers is the essence of good teaching
which requires constant evaluation of the specific strengths and
weaknesses of each pupil and planning of the best way to develop
their knowledge and understanding further. More formal assessment
for learning has a significant part to play and can build upon
and illuminate the teacher's informal knowledge of their pupils.
4. Testing can act as a motivator for students
and teachers but, in general, it can only improve attainment directly
if the outcomes of the tests are used to guide subsequent teaching
and learning. To be effective in this regard, assessment instruments
need to be designed primarily with this purpose in mind and to
provide more than a general snapshot of achievement. Although
it is possible to extract some formative information from summative
assessments like the National Curriculum tests by looking in detail
at the pattern of an individual pupil's performance on the different
questions in the test, their use for this purpose is inevitably
5. However, the primary use of the National
Curriculum tests is accountability for schools and monitoring
of the performance of the education system as a whole. They have
a second main purpose of providing standardised information for
parents and others about the progress of individual pupils. It
is sensible for them to be centrally run for both these purposes.
Although an arrangement in which there is local control of progress
assessment (say, at Local Authority level) with some system for
ensuring that the results can be aggregated to form a coherent
national picture for accountability purposes are possible, they
are likely to be more expensive and burdensome than a single national
system because of the need to establish comparability of standards
across many different local assessments.
6. At Key Stage 4 and beyond, the need for accountability
measures is met by collating outcomes from the qualifications
which the Awarding Bodies already provide for individual students.
This ensures that no additional assessment burden is placed upon
schools and students for accountability reasons. The primary purpose
of the work of the Awarding Bodies is certification of individual
achievement. The credibility of the qualifications is enhanced
because much of the assessment is external to the school or college
and centrally regulated, albeit not centrally administered.
7. The Awarding Bodies operate in competition
with each other and, as in other industries, competition encourages
them to be innovative and to operate to high standards of service
and offer high quality examinations. Modernization and innovation
in assessment is one of the benefits of competition. For example,
in large scale GCSE and A-level examinations, AQA is leading the
way in the use of electronic assessment, where candidates answer
on computers rather than on paper. A great deal of development
work is also underway to improve the quality, security and control
of the marking process by the use of modern technology. Quality
of marking is clearly an issue of great concern to the schools
which are our customers and it is unlikely to be a coincidence
that these important developments are progressing much faster
for qualifications where there are competing Awarding Bodies than
for National Curriculum Tests where there is no competitive pressure.
8. Even in an era when the content of many examination
requirements is largely determined by the regulator QCA, there
is scope for significant curriculum innovation which is encouraged
by competition between the Awarding Bodies. For example AQA's
recently developed Foundation Certificate in Secondary Education
in Modern Languages was welcomed by Lord Dearing in his recent
report on Language teaching and is intended to help reverse the
decline in the take up of Modern Languages in secondary schools.
We are also developing an AQA baccalaureate qualification which
will enable A-level students to have the breadth of their educational
experience, including enrichment activities such as work experience
or significant contributions in the community or to their school
or college, to be formally certificated alongside their A-level
9. There is significant scope for competition
in the level of service and support for teaching and learning
that an Awarding Body provides. AQA offers extensive programmes
of teacher support at the beginning of a new syllabus and regular
review opportunities as the syllabus becomes operational. High
quality and rapid feedback comes from examiner reports after each
examination and we ensure that comprehensive, innovative and motivating
teaching and learning materials are ready for use as soon as a
school has selected AQA as its examination provider. The provision
of teaching and learning support is a major, and growing, part
of the work which, as an educational charity, AQA does and is
one of the things which differentiates us from competitors.
10. Some critics believe that the existence
of several Awarding Bodies is bound to lower standards because
they will compete by awarding more high grades. The evidence does
not support this. There is little correlation between market share
and pass rates and thus little incentive to compete on standards
but, in any case, the General Qualification Awarding Bodies all
see their role as providing educational services for the benefit
of young people. This, and the credibility of the sector as a
whole, clearly depends upon comparability of standards between
the Awarding Bodies and we therefore work together on research
to ensure that our standards remain comparable, publishing the
reports of that work for public scrutiny. As our regulator, QCA
also does research in this area and has found no evidence of significant
and consistent differences of standard between the GCSE and A-level
Does a focus on national testing and assessment
reduce the scope of creativity in the curriculum?
11. The crucial issue here is the status given
to the results of testing and assessment and the extent to which
they become the primary focus of teaching and learning. There
is a clear tension between the need to ensure that schools are
properly accountable on the one hand and the need to allow room
for curriculum innovation and inspired teaching on the other.
12. There is no reason why a suitably structured
and restricted range of national testing and assessment should
swamp the curriculum and constrain creativity. Clarity about the
purpose of national testing and assessment is crucial to its design.
If the intention was only to measure the performance of schools,
then there would be no need to assess every pupil across the entire
curriculum at each key stagea sampling approach within
each school would be adequate. In the same way, if the intention
was only to monitor the system as a whole then sampling of schools
themselves would be possible within a system which would still
provide effective national accountability. If, on the other hand,
the intention is to provide information about the progress of
individual pupils, then a more comprehensive assessment regime,
like the present one, is necessary.
13. In this connection, we welcome the work
which QCA is proposing on the construction of diagnostic National
Curriculum assessment material for use by teachers wishing to
assess their pupil's progress when they are ready for it. Once
established, these assessments could replace the use of Key Stage
tests for individual purposes, allowing those tests to be scaled
down, reducing the burden of testing for accountability purposes
upon pupils and improving the cost-effectiveness of the accountability
14. Underpinning the testing and assessment
regime is, of course, the National Curriculum itself. The latest
revisions to the programmes of study (in Science, for example)
appear to be taking an approach based more on key concepts and
requirements, rather than specifying all that must be taught.
This is to be welcomed as widening the scope for creativity in
Who is the QCA accountable to and is this accountability
15. QCA operates to remits from the Secretary
of State in relation to testing, assessment, qualifications development
and operation. From its behaviours, it appears that QCA sees its
main accountability as lying there.
16. There is therefore considerable potential
for conflict of interest between QCA's twin roles of developer
and regulator. The clearest example is in National Curriculum
Tests which QCA simultaneously operates (through its NAA division)
and regulates. However, there are many other instances. For example,
QCA produces the current Basic and Key Skills tests and requires
the Awarding Bodies to use them, rather than develop their own.
As a result, regulation is weak and there are serious problems
about accountability for the quality of the test material and
assessment processes used.
17. However, the most important problem arising
from the lack of clarity about QCA's accountability is encapsulated
by its recent decision to regulate the entry fees for new A-levels
and Diplomas. This is within QCA's statutory powers and entry
fees are clearly a legitimate area of engagement for a qualifications
regulator. But there was no visible attention paid to operational
efficiency or cost-effectiveness during QCA's work on developing
the structures and operating rules for these qualifications, and
nor is there reference to these matters in the criteria for their
accreditation. There is a need for clear separation between the
qualifications regulatorwith real independence from Governmentand
the agency working to government remits to develop new families
of qualifications in furtherance of policy. Such a separation
could make a major contribution to the proper consideration of
the impacts, both educational and financial, of new qualifications
that are being considered and developed as part of national policy.
At present these important considerations, which have major implications
for the administrative burdens on schools and significant impacts
upon school budgets, are given little or no priority until the
design phase for new qualifications is overa highly unsatisfactory,
if long-standing, state of affairs.
What role should exam boards have in testing and
18. Exam boards (Awarding Bodies) are concerned
primarily with the provision of qualifications to enable individual
students to progress to subsequent stages of education or employment.
The use of qualifications for this purpose has the effect of ensuring
that, as far as possible, those who engage in further study or
particular jobs are equipped to do so. In this way, qualifications
contribute to greater efficiency in the employment of the nation's
human capital than the alternatives (essentially influence, patronage
and random selection). Equally important, qualifications contribute
to social cohesion by providing a widely accepted and essentially
meritocratic basis for sharing educational and vocational resources.
19. As a result, the Awarding Bodies are the
organisations in the UK with the greatest knowledge and most practical
experience of educational assessment. AQA, for example, prepares
assessment materials and organises examinations on a national
scale every year (we set, mark and process approximately 13 million
individual student assessments every summer). AQA also has the
largest research facility of any of the exam boards in the UK,
making our Research Division the largest group of professional
researchers anywhere in the UK who are working solely on educational
20. With this background, it would be sensible
for Awarding Bodies like AQA to play a central role in National
Curriculum testing and assessment within the UK. However, there
is little incentive for an organisation like AQA to involve itself
in current National Curriculum testing because the educational
work is inevitably tightly specified, leaving no scope for curriculum
development and, historically, development of the assessment processes
is marked by an aversion to innovation which makes the use of
modern technology and the delivery of cost-efficiencies difficult.
The result is that contracts to operate National Curriculum tests
are essentially about delivery of routine administration on behalf
of QCA, rather than educational or assessment development work.
21. This may be about to change to some extent
with the proposed development by QCA of National Curriculum assessments
which pupils will take when they are ready, with the intention
of supporting personalised learning backed by diagnostic assessment
in classrooms. It will be crucial for this work to be approached
as an opportunity to develop National Curriculum assessments which
are innovative in terms of assessment processes if the expertise
of the Awarding Bodies is to be engaged, as it should be, in these
important national developments.
16 AND AFTER
Is the testing and assessment in "summative"
tests (for example, GCSE, AS, A2) fit for purpose?
22. The purpose of GCSEs and A-levels is to
identify within reasonable parameters of confidence, and certificate,
a student's performance in a particular subject at a particular
time. The assessment arrangements are fit for this purpose and
based upon educationally valuable specifications which are only
accredited following rigorous consideration by QCA. Specifications
have to meet national qualification and subject criteria and assessment
processes have to comply with a statutory Code of Practice. As
a result, there is no evidence that standards of demand and reward
are not broadly consistent across Awarding Bodies and over time
so the confidence that end users of the qualifications have in
them is not misplaced.
23. The standards of attainment which GCSE and
A-levels represent are widely recognised, understood and valued
by Further and Higher Education and employers. The qualifications
are highly valued by young people and their parents.
Are the changes to GCSE coursework due to come
into effect in 2009 reasonable? What alternative forms of assessment
might be used?
24. In 2006, examination coursework in GCSE
and A-level examinations was the subject of an important report
from QCA. The report confirmed the value of coursework in many
subjects but the issues of candidates receiving assistance with
their coursework and of plagiarism, especially involving the use
of the Internet, were highlighted. QCA outlined a number of initiatives
to address these issues, such as improving the understanding of
what is acceptable in terms of assistance. AQA is fully committed
to these initiatives and has been actively working on them with
QCA and other awarding bodies.
25. QCA has also reduced considerably the amount
of coursework in examination requirements, particularly for the
new GCSEs. There has also been a reduction in the amount of coursework
involved in A-level for courses starting in 2008, as part of the
change in the number of assessment units in most subjects from
6 to 4. Is the reduction in the amount of coursework in GCSE and
A-level examinations the best policy to pursue? To answer this
question, we need to understand how we have arrived at the current
26. Although coursework is the term that everybody
uses, teacher-assessment might be a better one. Most GCSE and
A-level coursework components consist of a well-defined piece
(or pieces) of work which students complete during their course
and which is then marked by their own teacher. Rigorous external
moderation procedures are applied by the Awarding Bodies after
the assessments have been made, in which external examiners re-mark
a sample of work from each school to ensure that every teacher's
marking is done to the same standard.
27. However, examination coursework was originally
intended to be work carried out during the course, not an additional
examination requirement such as an extended essay or project.
For example, the early requirements for examination coursework
in GCSE English Literature were for assessments by teachers of
pieces of work produced during the course of study across a range
of genres, periods, and so onwork which arose naturally
as part of the study of literature over two years. This approach
leads to a wide range of work being produced and assessed and
requires significant professional participation in standardising
and moderating the work. Consequently, moderation of this sort
of coursework focussed upon training and professional development
in meetings of teachers organised by Awarding Bodies, as well
as on external checking after the event.
28. Between the 1980s and the present day, coursework
changed in its nature and the perception of it changed equally.
Concerns expressed, but never justified with substantial evidence,
about the extent to which the original approach involved trusting
in the professionalism of teachers led policy makers to seek increasing
amounts of control over the nature of the work assessed and direct
moderation of the marks awarded. The consequence is the situation
we now have where a more formulaic and controlled approach leads
to less motivation for students and more of a sense of burden
for teachers. The very tight definition of the coursework which
candidates have to do facilitates plagiarism and other practices
which now cause concern.
29. In essence, the historical attempt to reduce
risks relating to teacher professionalism by increasing amounts
of control, has created different risks relating to the authentication
of coursework as the work of the students themselves. The question
is whether it is now possible to move back towards a system in
which examination coursework arises more naturally as part of
the student's learning and is assessed by teachers working under
a framework of quality assurance, as well as quality control.
30. Ironically, at the very time when QCA is
reducing coursework in many GCSE and A-level examinations, the
new Diplomas will involve subjects and units which, by their very
nature, require assessment by teachers of vocationally related
activities, many of which involve hands-on practical work. The
resources required to externally examine these activities would
be prohibitive and they do not lend themselves to re-marking after
the event by an external moderator. Similarly, Applied GCSEs are
already fully operational and feature a pattern of two internally
assessed portfolio units and one external assessment. Teaching
for Applied GCE A-levels started in September 2005 and this summer
(2007) will see students being awarded the first full Applied
A-level results. These are a key part of the strategy to broaden
the range of learning available to 14 to 19 year olds and, in
general, consist of 2/3 coursework and 1/3 external assessment.
They involve an approach which puts major emphasis on the accreditation
of individual teachers, who retain their accreditation even if
they move centre, subject to light moderation.
31. With appropriate structures of support and
moderation, teacher assessment can provide valid and reliable
results within an environment that is encouraging to students,
rather than daunting. The concerns that have been voiced about
possible plagiarism through the use of the Internet and malpractice
through the input of others (fellow students, parents, and so
on) are valid, but appropriate action can be taken to ensure fairness
and that appropriate grades are awarded. Work which arises naturally
during the course is much more varied, enabling teachers more
easily to detect plagiarism, especially if the work is done, at
least in part, in the classroom under controlled conditions. Discussions
over what represent adequately controlled conditions are currently
taking place to define criteria for teacher-assessed components
and AQA will put those outcomes into action. It is possible to
set assessment pieces that are of a task-like nature but which
can be completed in the classroom, under direct supervision and
within a restricted timeframe. In these sorts of ways, plagiarism
can be made much more difficult to do and easier to detect so
that, if it does occur, it can be identified and penalised.
32. In the world outside education it is relatively
unusual for anyone to sit down and think and write continuously
without the opportunity to explore additional resources or check
points with colleagues. Such opportunities reinforce the value
of collaborative and team building skills. Many modern coursework
requirements are artificial to the extent that help from colleaguesin
this case teachers and parentsis artificially restricted.
If we are preparing our young people for the world beyond school,
then activities which require elements of independent study and
research but also sharing and cross referencing with others must
33. These arguments show that alternatives to
reducing the amount of coursework in examinations are possible
and consistent with current policy developments. They also reflect
the fact that, on a large scale, many practical skills cannot
be assessed externally in a valid and cost-effective way. As is
implicitly acknowledged in the new Applied GCSEs, Applied GCEs
and Diplomas, some assessment is best done by teachersa
further example would be oral skills. QCA has therefore tried
to identify those academic subjects which require coursework assessment
and has prohibited its use in others. This is a restrictive and
narrow approach which unnecessarily limits the choice available
to teachers and students. If teacher assessment can provide good
quality assessment when it is essential, there is little logic
in prohibiting it as an option in any subject.
What are the benefits of exams and coursework?
How should they work together? What should the balance between
34. Balance is everything here. Exams ensure
a level playing field, but can distort teaching and learning.
Coursework, where it is well designed and well implemented, supports
learning but, as noted above, makes it more difficult to ensure
a level playing field. Each form of assessment can assess different
aspects of knowledge, skills and understanding and they work well
together where they do not assess the same things but are used
in a complementary way.
35. There is no single answer to the question
about balance. One balance is not appropriate for all subjects.
A judgement must be made as to which assessment strategies best
fit the particular subject and course specification and which
strategies will provide the most valid and robust assessment of
the student's abilities in each area of learning involved. By
this means it is possible to produce an assessment scheme that
is supportive of good teaching and facilitates learning. This
is the aspiration which should determine the choice of balance
between exams and coursework, or any other form of assessment.
Will the ways in which the new 14-19 diplomas
are to be assessed impact on other qualifications, such as GCSE?
36. The multi-component nature of the Diplomas
will impose pressures on students that are different from those
which arise from the separate demands of a number of GCSE or A-level
subjects. This will be particularly true at Level 2 where there
is strong evidence that the requirement to pass the functional
skills at that level before a Diploma can be awarded will be a
severe challenge for many students. If a student is finding it
difficult to maintain the requisite level of success across the
range of demands of the Diploma it is likely that they will seek
to reduce the pressures from elsewhere to enable them to focus
on their Diploma work. However, this may well be a desirable trade-off
if it replaces poor results in a range of GCSEs with success in
a coherent Diploma course. The number of GCSEs taken by many young
people is, in any case, an issue which is worthy of review and
pressures to reduce it somewhat are not self-evidently disadvantageous,
given that there is a requirement for the functional skills and
other broader activities alongside the vocational cores of the
37. There is, however, a related matter of major
concern to AQA which arises from the proposed relationship between
Functional Skills and GCSE qualifications in English Mathematics
and ICT. For GCSE courses in these subjects starting in 2010 it
is presently policy that students will be required to achieve
Level 2 in the relevant Functional Skill to be eligible for the
award of a Grade C. Our research into the potential impact of
this `hurdle' suggests a major risk that there will be a significant
consequential reduction in the number of students achieving success
at Grade C or better in these GCSEs, particularly in English.
38. Of course, it could be that the situation
will be different in practice when the new GCSEs in English, Mathematics
and ICT are first certificated in 2012. Levels of achievement
in the functional skills will, hopefully, have improved significantly
as a result of a strong emphasis on their teaching and learning
in the intervening years. This is clearly the intention of the
policy involved. However, the policy will require significant
investment and careful monitoring of its success in order to ensure
that GCSE standards can be maintained when the functional skills
"hurdles" begin to operate in 2012. The consequences
of a major change in GCSE standards and outcomes in English and
Mathematics in that year would be problematic because of the compulsory
inclusion of these subjects within school performance measures
at Key Stage 4. More important, however, is the potential for
very grave injustice to be done to the young people affected,
as they compete with those from the year before for the same jobs
and places in Further and Higher Education.
Is holding formal summative tests at ages 16,
17 and 18 imposing too great a burden on students? If so, what
changes should be made?
39. The burden is considerable at age 16 because
of the range of subjects commonly taken. Where students are clearly
going on to post-16 study, what purpose do 8-10 GCSE grades serve?
Where students are clear which subjects they want to take through
to post-16 education, it is entirely possible to have a system
where they do not take the `summative' GCSE examination in those
subjects at 16. This was an aspect of the old O-level and A-level
examinations which operated successfully in many schools. Clearly,
in the current world where there is more mobility at age 16 there
is a greater need for certification of achievement at 16 but for
many students a record of subjects studied would serve the purpose
adequately in subjects which they plan to study furthercertainly
when that further study is to be at the same school.
40. Similarly, there is little point in AS certification
(and thus examination) when a student plans to progress to A2.
If AS and A2 were decoupled, so that AS was no longer formally
part of A-level examinations, such students could bypass assessment
at AS and proceed straight to A-level. For the rest, AS could
continue to act as a useful qualification, certificating their
work in the first post-16 year and enabling them to choose their
full A-levels informed by their progress so far. Such a decoupling
arrangement would need the support of Higher Education as it would
impact upon admissions arrangements but it would offer the opportunity
for the A-level assessment to be more holistic in nature which
is something for which many HE institutions have expressed support.
To what extent is frequent, modular assessment
altering both the scope of teaching and the style of teaching?
41. Modular assessment arrangements can give
rise to a perception that the subject as a whole is not addressed
as it would be with a wholly end of course assessment. If the
modular assessment structure is accompanied by a modular approach
to teaching and learning, then opportunities to explore broader
issues arising from the studies are reduced. In most subjects,
particularly at A-level, these sorts of issues require a more
comprehensive understanding of different aspects of study. It
takes time to accumulate the knowledge and skills required to
address real issues rather than ones that have been contrived
to fit within the confines of the limited areas of study currently
in focus. In order to attempt to address such concerns a number
of artifices have been added to A-level, such as synoptic assessment
and stretch and challenge questions, but with varying degrees
42. On the other hand, modular examinations
and courses enable greater flexibility of provision and can improve
achievement through better structuring of courses, increased accessibility
of course content to students, valuable feedback about progress
and continuing motivation. They also help to ensure that students
who do not successfully complete entire courses nonetheless receive
proper recognition and certification of what they have achieved.
Some institutionsparticularly in the FE sectoruse
module results as part of their accountability arrangements for
43. It is for these sorts of reasons that many
Higher Education courses of study are now modular in nature, despite
precisely the same implications for holistic understanding of
the subject being an issue at that level. It is also important
to note that unitisation (modules) is a design feature of the
new Diplomas and vocational qualifications generally.
44. The right response to this sort of situation
in which there are clear strengths and weaknesses in a particular
assessment model is to provide choice for schools, colleges and
therefore students. One student's motivation from regular module
tests is another student's stressful burden and a choice should
be provided, rather than a single model to fit all. This was the
case prior to the introduction of the Curriculum 2000 A-levels
and could be so again if QCA were to develop appropriately flexible
criteria for A-levels.
How does the national assessment system interact
with university entrance? What does it mean for a national system
of testing and assessment that universities are setting entrance
tests as individual institutions?
45. University resources are not unlimited so
we have to choose which of our young people we are going to make
them available to. Putting this selection process on a sound basis
is the key purpose of A-level examinations but there is currently
a significant problem in using A-levels for selection to some
university courses: a minority of University selectors find themselves
faced with more applicants than they can accommodate who have
straight A grades from their A-levels.
46. Does this mean that A-levels are too easy?
The average Grade A pass rate for A-levels in 2006 was about 24%meaning
that almost a quarter of the candidates for a typical A-level
got a grade A. There are five grades altogether, so having a quarter
of candidates in the top grade means that the grade scale is not
providing as much differentiation between the candidates as it
could. This is the result of maintaining the standard represented
by the grades over a period when young people's achievements improve
significantly. Judged educationally, it is cause for celebration.
But judged from the standpoint of the effectiveness of A-level
examinations for university selection purposes it is a problem.
47. On the other hand, if we look at the complete
results of individual candidates, most of whom take several A-levels,
we do not see a general problem of differentiation:
||3 As||2 As
|Cumulative % of candidates||2.5%
|Cumulative % of 18 year-olds||0.8%
48. Only just over 9% of candidates get 3 or more Grade Asand
that is just 3% of all the 18 year-olds in the country in any
one year because only about a third of 18 year-olds take any A-levels
at all. Only about 11% of our 18 year-olds get one or more Grade
As at A-level. From these figures, it is very hard to argue a
case for making it harder to get a Grade A at A-level, but there
is a case for introducing a Grade A* to differentiate within the
top 25% of candidates in each subject and to ensure that A-levels
remain fit for their purpose of providing the basis for fair selection
for university courses of all types.
49. AQA is therefore strongly supportive of the decision
to introduce a new A* grade at A-level. There are to be revised
A-level courses starting in 2008 which include some more demanding
and open-ended questions and the present policy is to bring in
the new A* when the first awards are made for those new A-levels
in 2010. However, there is enough information in the marks of
candidates taking current A-levels to enable us to differentiate
effectively between candidates within the present Grade A and
we believe that we could, and should be permitted to, introduce
the new A* two years earlier than that, in 2008. We would urge
that this be given serious consideration.
50. Of course, there is detail to be worked through about
the precise mechanism for awarding Grade A* but AQA has already
done a substantial amount of research on this topic. There are
other important matters to be decided as wellnot least
the question of how many UCAS points the new A* grade will be
given. However, none of these technical matters is difficult or
complex enough to prevent A* grades being awarded and used in
university selection from Summer 2008.
51. There are two issues of concern about the introduction
of an A* grade. One is the increased pressure which it will exert
on young people. Some of those who currently aspire to achieve
straight Grade As will now aspire to straight Grade A*s. For some,
that will be an appropriate aspirationand it is not the
business of educators to persuade their students out of having
high expectations of themselvesbut for others it will not
be an appropriate target and it will be vital for teachers to
provide wise counsel to students about how best to spend their
time and energy during their A-level studies. It will be essential
for everyone to understand that the standard of Grade A has not
changedthat a Grade A at A-level remains an excellent result
which only 11% of our 18 year-olds achieve.
52. The other concern which has sometimes been expressed
about the introduction of an A* grade at A-level relates to widening
participation and, particularly, the issue of inclusiveness. In
particular, independent school students are over-represented among
those awarded a grade A, given the proportion of all candidates
educated in independent schools. Independent school students make
up 14% of all A-level candidates but 28% of those with grade A.
Will they predominate even more in the new Grade A*? Preliminary
research carried out by AQA across a range of subjects, including
Art, Sciences, English Literature, Foreign Languages and Social
Sciences suggests that the proportion of independent school pupils
in Grade A* is likely to be a little higher than it is for Grade
A, at around 33%, with 18% coming from FE and 6th form colleges
and 47% of candidates with A* grades coming from maintained schools.
There is a challenge here for the maintained sector as a whole
but these are only average figures. The reality is that there
is a range of achievement in all school types, with many maintained
schools and colleges more than matching their independent colleagues
in terms of examination results. It can only be good if the introduction
of a new Grade A* at A-level serves as a spur to further improvement
in schools of all types.
53. Certainly, the introduction of specific university entrance
tests is a backward step and not conducive to an education system
that seeks to give the same opportunities to all. Such tests bring
significant risks of curriculum distortion and problems of social
inclusion as a result of differential availability and level of
preparation for candidates from different backgrounds and in different
types of schools. A national assessment system which meets the
selection requirements of all universities is a much more equitable
approach and is the pattern in use generally around the world.
54. One of the ways of selecting people for University which
is sometimes suggested as being better than A-levels, precisely
from a social inclusion perspective, is the use of aptitude, or
reasoning, tests. Those who propose aptitudeor reasoningtests
for university selection usually make two, related claims:
They claim that assessing aptitude or reasoning
ability, rather than class-room learning, removes the effects
of schooling. So they claim it is a fairer way of selecting which
will help to widen participation and promote social inclusion.
They also often claim that it is better because
it provides better predictions of success at university.
55. Neither of these claims is consistent with the evidence.
In the USA aptitude tests have been used to select students for
university for years, with the consequence that a great deal of
time is spent practising for the tests. And in this country when
selection at 11 was common primary school children spent many
hours practising for their 11 plus. The fact is that scores can
be significantly improved on any sort of test by practice and
preparation. All the evidence is that teaching improves aptitude
test scoresthey are not "school proof" and are
not, therefore, inherently better than examinations in terms of
ensuring that selection is fair or socially inclusive.
56. Nor are aptitude or reasoning tests any better predictors
of success in university than examinations. In fact, in this country,
studies have shown A-level to be the best single predictor of
success at university, albeit not a very good one. Around the
world, there are countries which use tests of various kinds, countries
which use examinations and plenty of combined approaches. Overwhelmingly,
the evidence is that none of these selection methods provides
very reliable predictions of students' performance at university.
And nor is it surprising that it is difficult to predict the future
3 years hencea future which involves a quite different
approach to education and some of the most significant developments
in many students' personal lives.
57. So aptitude tests are neither fairer nor better predictors
of success than exams like A-levels. But their downside is that
time spent practising and preparing for them could be spent on
learning which has real benefit. Preparing for exams like A-levels
which are embedded in the curriculum is about learning which has
purpose. The use of tests which supposedly assess reasoning ability
or aptitude, independent of schooling, canand usually doesdistort
the curriculum significantly.
58. But if it is to be examinations, rather than aptitude
tests, which we use to select young people for university, would
baccalaureate style examinations be better than A-levels? Baccalaureates
compel each student to follow a broad range of study. This may
mean including mathematics, their mother tongue, a foreign language,
perhaps something about the theory of knowledge in their courseas
well as the subjects in which they are specialising. Choice for
students is therefore constrained. Such constraints are not self-evidently
desirable, especially at a time when individualised learning is
seen as an important tool in the drive to encourage more young
people to stay in education after the age of 16, and to go to
University. For example, when there is concern about the decline
in the number of people studying physical sciences, we would surely
not want to prevent a talented scientist from going to University
because they either cannot, or will not, study a modern foreign
59. A-levels, unlike baccalaureates, offer a wide choice
for students in which broad study or specialisation is possible,
depending upon their own interests and enthusiasms. And it is
interest and enthusiasm which leads to learning which lasts, rather
than learning which is done purely to get a qualification and
which is then forgotten afterwards.
60. A-levels are also available in ones and twos. It is often
not appreciated that 25% of our 18 year old A-level candidates
take only 1 or 2 of them. This means that students who have a
particular talent, but who would struggle to succeed in all the
elements of a baccalaureate, can obtain valued qualifications
which fully recognise their achievement. We should not deny those
students that possibility, perhaps forcing them, instead, to take
a lower level baccalaureate qualification which does not do justice
to their particular talents in Art, Sport, Music or, indeed, in
English Literature or Mathematics, if that is where their abilities
lie. Such an approach would be inconsistent with the aim of developing
each individual to the full extent of their capabilities, both
for their own benefit, and that of society at large.
61. Baccalaureates should be offered as a choice for those
whose educational needs are best met that way and AQA is currently
developing its own baccalaureate qualification which will certificate
student's A-level results alongside the completion of a personal
in-depth study, learning about thinking or citizenship and their
wider activities such as work experience, contributions in the
local community or personal development programmes such as the
Duke of Edinburgh's Award scheme.
AQA's Director General, Mike Cresswell, would be delighted
to give oral evidence to the Select Committee if required and
would welcome the opportunity for further discussion and clarification
of any of the points raised in this memorandum.
As well as being Director General of AQA, Mike Cresswell
is a Visiting Professor at London University's Institute of Education.
He has worked on national and international surveys of students'
mathematical attainment at the National Foundation for Educational
Research and was an active researcher on assessment matters for
many years before the formation of AQA for which he was Director
of Examinations Administration before taking up his present post
He has a national and international reputation as an expert
on assessmentparticularly on the topic of setting examination
standards. He has published many papers, research reports and
books on assessment. He served on Tomlinson's Assessment Group
and continues to be closely involved in national discussions on
the introduction of the new Diplomas, contributing especially
to the recent work on methods of awarding candidates' grades.
Mike believes the major challenge of the next few years in
the assessment field is the search for ways of bringing technology
to bear on assessment to reduce costs and burden on schools and
students in a way which both improves assessment quality and retains
fitness for educational purpose.