Skip to main content

Ofqual report: changes to A-level marking and grading

Scroll down for links to a summary and the technical report carried out by Ofqual.

Ofqual have been looking into grading for A-level modern languages, partly in response to concern expressed by subject associations and teachers about the apparent lack of A* grades compared to other subjects. In essence, although MFL gets a reasonable share of A*/A grades (although still tougher than most subjects), of these only a relatively small percentage are A* grades.

As a teacher I was certainly aware of this issue and it is one factor behind the reluctance of students to take up MFL at A-level. When one also bears in mind that a small percentage of candidates are native speakers with, in many cases, a great advantage over their peers, getting an A* has been really tough in MFL.

So what did Ofqual find? Well, firstly they have to be commended for carrying out a very detailed technical report which gets right into the nitty gritty of question setting and mark schemes. Teachers would not believe how complex and technical this whole area is. I got a first insight into this at a recent AQA training meeting. Each exam board was looked at by Ofqual, exam papers, markschemes, marking and awarding were analysed, and specific recommendations have been made for each board, as well general instructions given in relation to summer 2015 and the future.

One example picked up by Ofqual relates to the mark scheme for the AQA essays at AS and A2 level. AQA is the most popular board and teachers have often complained about inconsistent and strict marking of essays. How do you get a really high mark? The issue here is that the level based assessment scheme puts a cap on marks for range/complexity and accuracy, depending on the content of the essay. This means that very able candidates with exceptional language skills are not being rewarded as highly as they should be because the content mark limits their overall mark. Teachers have often grumbled about this, as well as the fact that it is not clear what students have to do to achieve a very high content mark in the first place. Are students better advised to make lots of points relatively superficially or develop a smaller number of points more fully?

I think the original justification for this "limiting by content" approach was that it would stop candidates producing ready-made and totally irrelevant essays. Firstly, I doubt this happens very much, and secondly you can still mark irrelevance down in the content box, whilst still rewarding high quality language.

Ofqual also picks up the fact that exam boards are not thorough enough in how they produce a range of questions of varying challenge. For example, one board is criticised for making the listening questions generally too easy, so that candidates who are very good at listening and weaker at writing are insufficiently rewarded for listening compared with other candidates. In other words, the assessment fails, to some extent, to reward skills equally, marks may become compressed in the middle and rank order of candidates is less reliable than it should be.

As I say these are quite technical issues which exam boards may have been insufficiently hot on in the past and which Ofqual are now picking up. One has to ask the question: why was this not got right back around 2000 when the new specifications and their mark schemes were established? One answer to this may be that Ofqual is now more professional than its equivalent was in 2000 and that perhaps research is teaching us more about the fine detail of producing exams which are both reliable and valid.

I have only touched the surface of the issues involved here (because I only understand some of them!). Ofqual have a good deal to say about oral assessment, generally finding it too generous and unable to distinguish the very good from the exceptional student. Suffice it to say, that exam boards have been instructed to make changes to mark schemes and question setting which will allow for a fairer rank order and potential access to the higher grades. Ofqual state explicitly that changes may lead to more A*s. Some key changes must be made for this year's exams (notably mark scheme changes which will allow for more A*s), others must be kept in mind for new exams to come.

Ofqual are at pains to stress that this should mean no changes in teaching, but no doubt teachers will be keen to share any new essay mark schemes with students as soon as possible.


Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:

Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…