liv: ribbon diagram of a p53 monomer (p53)
[personal profile] liv
As someone who teaches university undergrads, I've been asked for my opinion as part of Ofqual's consultation on A Level reform. And I figure this is a topic that exercises a lot of my friends, so have at it, express your opinions! (If you have some experience of English education this is probably going to be a lot more meaningful to you than otherwise, but hey, opinions are always good.)

The main proposals seem to be to get rid of modular A Levels and January exams, get rid of multiple resits until you get the mark you want, and shift the balance of assessment back to one-shot final exams including essay questions. And they want to do something about the AS / A2 split system that's been in place since 2002. The options are either:
  1. Keep the system more or less as is, but you can only resit your AS at the end of your second year, and can't resit A2 at all except by starting over the whole course.
  2. Keep AS exams as one-year qualifications covering the "easier" half of an A Level, but not have them be a partial step on the way to A2. I assume this means people would have to choose at sixth form entry whether they wanted to take a full A Level or an AS in each subject.
  3. Remove AS altogether as a qualification, and return to two-year A Levels as the only option, with the expectation that most students take 3 to 4 subjects. (The system that those of us oldsters who left school before 2002 remember!)
They also want to force exam boards to show evidence of detailed consultation with universities and other stakeholders about curriculum content and exam design, which seems to me like pretty much a no-brainer. The stated goal is to define A Levels explicitly as entry qualifications to higher ed, but they acknowledge that employers are going to care about A Level marks for school leavers. There's also something vague and handwavy to do with dropping subjects that don't lead to university courses and creating new subjects to meet demands, but I'm not quite sure what they have in mind for that.

My initial reaction is that this seems like basically a good idea. It's a complete waste of time and effort for sixth formers to take four or more sets of high stakes public exams in a two year course, I'd much rather they spent the bulk of that time learning! I am suspicious of modular A Levels with unlimited resits, both in general as an opinionated person and as an educator who has to train far too many students out of the cram and dump learning style. In general I think current A Levels encourage way too much teaching to the test, and allow well-resourced schools to game the system so that nearly all their pupils get As and A*s without actually grasping their subjects well.

However it also has Michael Gove's "return to traditional standards" fingerprints all over it. I know a lot of my friends are much more anti-Tory than I am, (and I have very limited respect for Gove myself) so I would welcome your perspectives. I suspect this is a lot of populist fiddling which may make for supportive headlines in the right-wing media, but won't actually change the important things that are wrong with current education or address major inequalities. There are lots of reforms that I'd like to see that would go way beyond simply scrapping modular A Levels. But the return to linear A Levels is what we're being offered, so I'm trying to make up my mind whether it's a good thing on balance or not. The consultation, like me, is interested in equality issues; I'm aware that a key argument against weighting heavily towards final exams is that they disadvantage girls compared to boys, and also discriminate against people with certain types of learning difficulties and people with variable chronic conditions who may have to take the exam on a bad pain or brain fog day.

So, what do you think? Is a linear course primarily assessed by final exam a good or a bad thing? Should AS qualifications be scrapped or demoted from their half A Level status? Which A Level subjects should be mercifully retired, and which new ones should replace them? This is probably less important than the marriage equality consultation, but it's somewhere where I have a tiny amount of influence, and you're very welcome to try to persuade me to your view.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-20 01:45 pm (UTC)
ptc24: (Default)
From: [personal profile] ptc24
Looking at the 2011 results (look at the spreadsheet they link to, on the page itself they present the results in a funny way) it seems that the equality arguments break differently depending on what level you're interested in: at the A* level it looks better to keep things as they are, further down, moving to big-exams-at-the-end may be beneficial.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-20 04:06 pm (UTC)
pensnest: I quote therefore I am, in knotwork frame (Quote)
From: [personal profile] pensnest
I took my first three A-Levels (French, German, History) in 1977 (incidentally I had an eye ulcer and sat some of the papers with one eye wrapped in bandage!), and I took English Lit in 2005, after a correspondence course. I also have two children who sat their AS and A-Level exams somewhat after I did my Eng Lit.

All my own A-Levels were done with all exams bunched into one summer. It really did not seem like an undue burden - and it meant that the first year of sixth form was a really wonderful year, spent doing subjects I'd chosen and enjoyed, but without the pressure of those public exams at the end of the year. It was the year I was in the school play, joined the debating club, and so forth. It is an opportunity for sixth formers to branch out, take part in new activities - nourish their non-academic CVs, if you like - and I think it is important. For practical reasons I also elected to do my 2005 Eng Lit exams all in one go, too, and it was not difficult.

I was, however, always a child who did well in exams, possibly because I'm a quick writer and somewhat glib. I do think, therefore, that having at least one 'project' module (and perhaps an option for a second project) would be a good thing, because a long-term project of some kind demonstrates a different kind of work ability and gives people who aren't quite as fluent at exam technique a chance to shine. It would certainly have been the hardest part of an A-level for me, had I been required to do one - although it might have relieved some of the pressure of having to get through some of my papers one-eyed, back in 1977 when my results really mattered!

It seemed to me that my children did not benefit at all from sitting bits and pieces of their public exams at several times during the sixth form. It seemed to mean that they spent less time learning the material, more time revising and preparing for the next set of papers, and made the school year very bitty and odd, with lots of time off for 'exam study'. Surely our students are better off being *taught* than loafing about doing 'revision' every few weeks. I don't think either of mine did any retakes during this process, but really, if a student cannot retain the material in their mind for less than two years, have they really learnt it at all? I would certainly approve of a system which did away with the 'learn this module, now sit the exam, now forget it and learn the next module' approach.

In addition, there seemed to me to be a distinct difference in the character of the AS and A2 sections of the 2005 A-Level, which was not the case back in 1977 (obviously). I think it would be far better to give the option of an alternative, intermediate-level exam as an extra, but not as a part of the A-Level, which should all be examined at the same standard. No doubt students are not ready to sit an A2-style exam after just one term of sixth-form study, but the solution to this is to sit the whole A-Level in the final summer, not to make some parts simpler than others!

There are already several more vocational qualifications available to students over 16, and it seems sensible to maintain the A-Level as an *academic* qualification. It needs to be a real test, an A grade needs to be meaningful (it should never have been necessary for universities to look for A* gradings), and it needs to be able to measure the students fairly.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-21 11:15 am (UTC)
kaberett: Overlaid Mars & Venus symbols, with Swiss Army knife tools at other positions around the central circle. (Default)
From: [personal profile] kaberett
I like exams, I'm good at exams, I typically over-perform on them.

I'm also crippy. If I'm having a bad fatigue or pain day the day I take my chemistry A-levels, if it's a linear course with a single exam at the end? I'm HOSED. If it's modular, I've got much more evidence of "I should've done better than that."

A someone bitty 2p and will maybe come and expand on it some more later. (Am generally in favour of reducing number of resits and potentially of modules; I'm not at all keen on One Big Final Exam.)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-21 01:15 pm (UTC)
wychwood: chess queen against a runestone (Default)
From: [personal profile] wychwood
A couple of thoughts:

a) While I do understand that coursework is important for people who suffer under exam conditions (I'm another who performs well in exams and I really suck at coursework, just to expose my bias here!) I did think there was a real value in at least some of my A-Level courses being genuine two-year study. History, in particular, we were able to do a lot more over a solid year and a half of teaching and accumulation of knowledge and understanding rather than in chunks.

b) You seem to talk here about AS Levels as though they were new with the 2002 changes, but that's not actually the case; they were a separate pre-existing "half an A-Level" qualification when I was in school. I did Latin a year early for complicated reasons, and we were looking at one point into whether it would be better for me to take the AS rather than risking failing the full A-Level (though in the end I passed it OK). They weren't mainstream, but they were around, and I don't think they were new then.

Date: 2012-06-22 04:32 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I think that getting rid of modular exams may be no bad thing. I want to say they certainly didn't suit me, but in fact they suited me rather too well - they didn't challenge me, and they didn't encourage me to learn anything. I read the module textbooks the night before the exams, got the grades, forgot the content. By the time it came to my final physics module, which sat in between two final-final exams, I knew I only had to get a D or something on it to get an A overall, so I didn't bother to revise at all.

However I very much believe there is a place for coursework/project work.

My A-level history board had the rather odd system that you could submit a project if you wished, and you would receive a mark for it (iirc, somewhere between 0 and about 12) which would be straight-up *added* to your final exam mark. There was no point in the really good students doing coursework, because if you were sure to get an A anyway - why bother? If you were borderline, then the coursework might be worthwhile. I'm not sure about my view on this particular system!

ps I've now filled out four captchas. Doesn't it like me? ... seven ... eight


Date: 2012-06-22 04:33 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
okay, it finally stopped asking me for captchas when I changed it from openid to anonymous.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-22 10:10 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
As far as I can tell, for some reason I simply can't comment using my LJ as openid.

... well, trying again now. Maybe it will work after a little rest?

... nope. I'm not sure that sending me to a new captcha is a useful failure mode, though.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-23 11:17 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] sea_bright
My views are similar to those a few people have already expressed: I'm not a fan of modular courses, but I do think there's a lot to be said in favour of coursework. This is for two reasons.

First, as has already been noted, it means you don't have the stress of your entire mark depending on a final exam (or even two or three final exams, as was more usual in the courses I took). I generally did well in exams, but I still very much appreciated the fact that I went into my A level exams knowing I already had a certain proportion of the marks under my belt - not enough to mean I didn't need to work for the exams, but enough to take the edge off the inevitable exam anxiety.

Secondly, coursework means that, well, you actually have to do some work during the course. There are some people (albeit a smaller number) who are prone to adopt the cram-and-immediately-forget approach even for a two-year exam course: they'll mess about not doing a great deal for the first year and a half, do a frantic burst of work towards the end, and still manage to come out with a good grade. There are at least two problems with this (in addition to it being irritating to those people who worked steadily through the course): it doesn't generally produce a deep, lasting knowledge of the subject, and for any given individual, it will only work up to a certain level. I've known people for whom this worked perfectly fine for A level, but who then found themselves in real trouble with the university course, largely because they'd never needed to acquire good learning habits earlier on. Coursework perhaps isn't a perfect solution to this, but it seems to me that having to do an assessed piece of work over a longer period does mitigate it to some extent.

One other practical point on exams v. coursework: I believe it's still the case that most exams have to be written by hand, and that many students are finding this increasingly difficult, as any sustained writing tends to be done electronically these days (this is certainly an issue in universities: I'm guessing it's also an issue in schools, though perhaps to a lesser extent). Coursework gives students a chance to submit work that doesn't depend quite so much on how much they can physically write in a set period.

I taught a couple of A level students a few years back, and one of them had to do something called a synoptic study. This was, as far as I could tell, intended to be coursework assessed under exam conditions: you got the question in advance, were allowed to spend as much time as you liked researching it and drafting an answer, but then had to write your actual answer (with the help of as many notes as you could fit on an A5 file card) in an invigilated two hour session. I believe the idea was to prevent people's parents or teachers doing their coursework for them - or rather, to make people demonstrate that they could at a minimum learn and regurgitate the essay someone else had written for them! However, it seemed to me just to combine the worst aspects of both forms of assessment...

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-25 10:06 am (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
I took modular A levels, and for the most part I think I prefer it that way because I find exams very difficult in a way that "real life" use of the things-learned-for-exams never seems to be (the whole set-up is stress-making, also the requirement for memorising arbitrary facts and such) and breaking it up into bits was nice from that point. Also on a more personal side, I found that early exam-success gave me more confidence for later exams.

From a physical science perspective I'd like to see more schools offering Further Maths. I don't think anything ought to be scrapped (everything has its uses) but I do think that students should get a clear picture of what universities want for the courses they are interested in taking before making their A level course choices.

I'd tend to prefer course-work assessment but for the fact that some schools will cheat at it and others won't so that's a huge source of unfairness.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-06-25 12:57 pm (UTC)
naath: (Default)
From: [personal profile] naath
Modular means a smaller amount of arbitrary memorisation; the potential to re-sit is somewhat stress-relieving although it wasn't really an option at my school :) Although I think you are right in that "really learning" means learning the connections between bits not all non-modular exams have this property :( :(

Careers advice would indeed be very good.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-03 12:32 pm (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
Oh, I'm late to the debate :-)

I think you (and many others) have already made the main point - you have a group of self-selecting friends most of whom (and I count myself in that) have done very well out of exams.

I think we have to work out _why_ exam reform, and then measure whether what we do achieves that.

I _think_ that actually, there is a stonkingly huge correlation between kids that perform well in final exams, kids that perform well in modular exams, and kids that perform well in coursework.

If the correlation was perfect, then the question would be 'what exam set up makes kids learn the best'. (It's not about how we rank them, because they're all going to get the same ranks under any system). For me, I think I would then want 'not too much time taken up with exams and cramming' - to give kids more time to actually learn, but 'some coursework' because really, it's much more how Actual Life and Work works. Also, I think 'no exams and then a Huge One' after two years just encourages procrastination, BICBW

Obviously the correlation isn't perfect, and then we get to ask questions about what edge cases don't correlate well. Courses where everything is assessed on one day with limited resit opportunities penalise people with health issues / other issues on that day. (This is an amazing story, but really, what kind of university has 'sit exams within two days of your baby being born, or have to give 'Deamed to Have Deserved Honours' instead of a grade for the rest of your life' as your two options?) Courses with coursework penalise people with chaotic lives (no calm place to do homework) and benefit people with good teachers and parents who can help. As far as I can tell, any sort of assessment method is harder for people in unlucky situations than for those with bucketloads of privilege.

So no easy answers, but a big plea for people to work out what they're trying to do, and then change the system to do it. At the moment all I can see is that they're trying to 'look tough' which doesn't seem great for the kids involved.

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-03 01:50 pm (UTC)
atreic: (Default)
From: [personal profile] atreic
I think linear rather than modular courses can be a real barrier to getting students into the universities that are right for them - with a linear course, applicants are applying based on predicted grades, whereas with a modular course they already have a good indicator of the likely outcome. It's easier to encourage nervous students to apply for the best universities if they've already performed well in modular exams. (Also, if someone really is on A levels that are wrong for them, it's likely to be picked up much sooner with modules than with linear exams)

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-03 02:27 pm (UTC)
purplecthulhu: (Default)
From: [personal profile] purplecthulhu
Late to the party as well - sorry!

I share the suspicion of modular A-levels that a number of others have expressed. The tendency to mug up on a module for the exams and then forget it all after is just too great - of course if the exams were less about recall and more about actually doing things this would be less of a problem, but more on that later.

Back when I did mine (early 80s) there used to be a separate class of exams called ASes, more advanced than O-level but less advanced than A-level. Why can't we have those again?

But more than messing with the format of exams, as someone who has done admissions for a big name university, what i would like to see is:

(a) A-levels getting harder. Yes there has been dumbing down - anybody who disagrees with this can just compare old-style physics A-levels, which included calculus, to the new ones which go out of their way to avoid such 'hard' maths. Sorry guys, physics uses a lot of maths and to pretend otherwise is just misleading the students). Moreover, having harder exams means that the dynamic range problem will stop. At the moment, university admissions teams have to tell between many candidates who have close to 100% in all their exams. Some of these people are great some... rather less so. But we can't use the exams to tell us, so we have to waste a huge amount of time interviewing all the candidates who look as if they might be good enough. Making the exams harder will also allow them to start testing more than bulk recall, which is easy to test but, frankly, not very useful.

(b) To return to relative grading rather than having some assumed absolute scale that defines who gets an A and an A*. If you're looking for the top 5 or 10% of people but 30 or 40% get As then you have problems. If it is pre-determined that the top 5% get A* the next 15% get A and so on then this makes things much easier. It also prevents grade inflation which, surprisingly, has been rampant since relative grading was abandoned (see eg. this blog post. If A-levels are to be seen as an entry test to higher education, then something like this is necessary otherwise universities will start setting their own exams to avoid the huge amount of time wasted in interviewing candidates. The Cambridge PreUs have already set this process running.

Of course while the exam boards compete with each other in having the easiest exams none of this is going to change, so that is something else that needs looking at...

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-03 04:33 pm (UTC)
purplecthulhu: (Default)
From: [personal profile] purplecthulhu
Yes - considerable dangers in this being cosmetic. I tried, but failed, to find an article I read a while back by a physicist who had been invited along to an exam board setting a new syllabus to help improve things. Not only were they ignored, they were explicitly told to be quiet as they were only there as window dressing.

I take your point about access to elite exams like the old 'S-levels'. The weird thing is that social mobility, as measured by university attendance, seems to have actually gone down since my days as a UG - the huge expansion in places over the last 20 years seems to have largely been taken up by the middle classes.

Aside from slashing the defence budget (or just buying a few fewer F35s since they're about 125M apiece) and diverting the savings to education at all levels (and a little for science), it's hard to know what can be done. Part of me thinks that something like grammar schools would help, but I know at least as many problem cases from that system as successes. And if I carry on typing I'll get to the managerialism rant, so I'll stop now...

(no subject)

Date: 2012-07-03 04:35 pm (UTC)
purplecthulhu: (Default)
From: [personal profile] purplecthulhu
PS And statistics needs to be taught to A level biology students as well, and then all the way through degrees. Statistics as currently done by medics is a nightmare!

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-28 10:59 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I'm a year older than you and did two AS levels as half ALevels, one because I took English GCSE a year early and one because it was my Wednesday afternoon 'sport' option.

(no subject)

Date: 2014-12-28 11:03 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Er, I'm not sure that added anything except that I wanted to say that I think #2 is the option that was in place before, but just a lot of places didn't always offer the AS option.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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