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Are the new A-level exams harder?

On the day when A-level results come out for 2017 we hear commentators talk of new harder A-levels. Michael Gove, we hear, wanted A-levels to be a match for other qualifications around the world, do away with the constant testing of modules and make the exams a better preparation for university by letting universities have a stronger say in the content of the specifications.

Are the new exams actually harder?

Firstly we need to distinguish between two types of difficulty. On the one hand we have the actual content of the syllabus and exams, on the other we have the issue of grading. You can have hard questions, but with a lenient mark scheme. You can also create a more demanding exam, yet maintain the same range of grades. This is what the Ofqual policy of "comparable outcomes" is meant to achieve year on year, including this year when some exams are new. In 2017 the proportion of A* and A grades rose slightly because of the way Ofqual allocate grades (partly through the questionable procedure of analysing KS2 results). For the new linear papers (not MFL) the proportion of A* grades fell slightly.

So if comparable outcomes are applied then by the second definition of difficulty A-levels will not become harder. I would expect grade patterns to remain very similar at a national level.

But are the exams becoming harder by the first definition? As reported today in the TES "Unlike the new GCSEs, there was no explicit intention that these new A-levels should be tougher than before, despite their linear structure." This has been the message I hear at AQA meetings and report to teachers too. Is the government spin of "tougher exams" inaccurate?

When you look at the old versus the new MFL A-level the most significant changes concern the assessment of the cultural aspects of the syllabus (including film and literature) and the Individual Research Project (assessed in the oral exam). More cultural information has to be memorised and displayed to meet the requirements of the mark scheme (Assessment Objective 4). In addition, within the Listening, Reading and Writing paper the main new testing format is the summary question. At AS-level there is no longer a general language essay and translation both ways now figures prominently, though not at a very high level.

Although I am no longer in the classroom, my work for AQA (writing and presenting) and analysis of specimen and actual AS papers, suggest to me that the new exam is not significantly more difficult than what has gone before. The film and literature assessment is a return to what was done prior to 2000 and requires good knowledge and technique. The summary questions are also a significant challenge, above all requiring candidates to be concise. The mark scheme for the summary question is not ungenerous. The IRP resembles some forms of coursework done before 2000 and requires different study techniques rather than tougher linguistic challenges. Candidates are not tested on specific knowledge but get to show off what they know on their own terms. The translation questions at AS-level are not too hard and at A-level are similar to before. Mark schemes for essays continue to reward both content and range/accuracy much as now.

Meanwhile the reading and listening content of the Listening, Reading and Writing papers, while covering somewhat different themes, looks similar in level of difficulty. Many question types are similar (matching, true/false/not mentioned, gap-fill and so on). In addition, the number of topics to be covered has diminished significantly which means teachers may feel less pressure to work through the treadmill of sub-topics. This allows more time to prepare students for the new techniques they will need.

My impression overall, then, is that while some aspects of the exam are new, the overall standard is not harder. This new A-level has been an evolution, not a revolution. Expect grades to be very similar.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


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