I’m sure there are very few people this morning turning their attention to A level results in 2017. Indeed it may be just me! Nevertheless, this September students will start courses for new linear A levels and this means the exam boards will have to change the way they set standards.
We have agreed a principle with the exam boards: that a student who achieved, for example, a grade B at A level yesterday ought to get the same outcome if they were to take a reformed A level in two years’ time. The same applies for AS, when students begin taking reformed subjects next summer.
Unlike reformed GCSEs (which will use a 9 to 1 grading scale), we’re keeping the current A* to E grading system for reformed A levels (A to E for reformed AS). So what’s the challenge?
First, the A* grade. The current rule is based on A levels that are made up of AS and A2 units. In reformed linear A levels, there is no need for such a complex rule, and no need for a ‘uniform mark scale’ either. A* will be another grade boundary that can be set by senior examiners (as for A and E) or set arithmetically (as for B, C and D).
Given the principle I outlined above, we would expect that, in a subject where the cohort is similar to previous years, the overall proportion of students achieving each grade is also similar to previous years. Senior examiners are used to making judgements about student work at grades A and E, but they don’t currently look at work at A*. If we want to maintain standards in the transition from current to reformed qualifications, we believe the best way to do this is to set the A* boundary using predictions based on the cohort’s prior attainment at GCSE. And we have agreed that A and E will continue to be key grade boundaries set by senior examiners, for both A level and AS.
The second challenge is dealing with changes to the cohort. AS currently offers students feedback on their progress halfway through the course, and before they decide to continue to the full A level. In the new system, we expect fewer students to take the AS halfway through their A level courses. We don’t know what the impact will be of removing that formal feedback (although teachers will, of course, continue to provide their own feedback along the way). It may be that more students take the full A level, or fewer, and that can make it more difficult for exam boards to maintain standards. It will also mean that overall results could look different (because if the cohort changes, we’d expect the proportion of students achieving each grade to change). We’ll be watching this very closely in 2016 and 2017.