Skip to main content

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

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

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…

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.


English 

_____. 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 _____ …

Preparing for GCSE speaking: building a repertoire

As your Y11 classes start their final year of GCSE, one potential danger of moving from Controlled Assessment to terminal assessment of speaking is to believe that in this new regime there will be little place for the rote learning or memorisation of language. While it is true that the amount of learning by heart is likely to go down and that greater use of unrehearsed (spontaneous) should be encouraged, there are undoubtedly some good techniques to help your pupils perform well on the day.

I clearly recall, when I marked speaking tests for AQA 15-20 years ago, that schools whose candidates performed the best were often those who had prepared their students with ready-made short paragraphs of language. Candidates who didn't sound particularly like "natural linguists" (e.g. displaying poor accents) nevertheless got high marks. As far as an examiner is concerned is doesn't matter if every single candidate says that last weekend they went to the cinema, saw a James Bond…

Worried about the new GCSEs?

Twitter and MFL Facebook groups are replete with posts expressing concerns about the new GCSEs and, in particular, the difficulty of the exam, grades and tiers. I can only comment from a distance since I am no longer in the classroom, but I have been through a number of sea changes in assessment over the years so may have something useful to say.

Firstly, as far as general difficulty of papers is concerned, I think it’s fair to say that the new assessment is harder (not necessarily in terms of grades though). This is particularly evident in the writing tasks and speaking test. Although it will still be possible to work in some memorised material in these parts of the exam, there is no doubt that weaker candidates will have more problems coping with the greater requirement for unrehearsed language. Past experience working with average to very able students tells me some, even those with reasonable attainment, will flounder on the written questions in the heat of the moment. Others will…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net 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 pixabay.com 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…