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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.


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