November 02, 2010

Blog 1: Bad Science

Bad Science: The Continued Mystery of the A-Level

The Guardian (London); August 21st 2020 Alan Terry; p15.

Grade A’s at A-level are at 100% and the debate continues between those who assert that these ‘gold standard’ qualifications have become easier and those who assert that they have not. In attempting to make a distinction between the much sensationalised ‘grade inflation’ and the under-reported, but more serious abandonment (or not) of standards, the essential questions to be asked are; how can we tell? And, to whom does it matter?

In the absence of clear, effective, and published (Official Secrets Act: 30 year rule) ‘measurands’ of the comparability of exam grades over time the furor over standards continues to intensify. Even the editors of Techniques for Monitoring the Comparability of Examination Standards published by the (now defunct) Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in 2008 warned, “this is not an enterprise characterized by … solutions.”

The idea that young learners are getting cleverer is lent support by the Flynn squared (Flynn2)

effect that describes the rapid improvement in IQ scores since the quotient shifted (2015) to regular ipsative testing through a set of constant test items. From 2015 until now these improvements in IQ have correlated strongly and positively with individual A-level grades. There are those who point to this strong predictive validity of IQ testing to advocate the complete abolition of A-levels in order to realise potential manageability gains in post-16 assessment, their dissenters however point to the inherent loss of face validity, if this ‘gold standard’ were ever to be abandoned.

However others (probably very left-wing) point to the intensification of the ‘high stakes’ nature (the threatened closure of non-performing (B grades at A-level) sixth forms in sub-middle class neighbourhoods) of the A-level, along with the increased competition between awarding bodies that has coincided with the abolition of examinations and the introduction of teacher assessment (albeit against an explicit but narrow range of performance criterion) combined with universal in-course grade replacement strategies. As one experienced teacher commented, “this does not make the qualification easier, indeed some students (a few) still take the full two years to achieve.”

Silvia (17 years old) who has just completed the first year of her A-level study at College commented, “like cause they dissed our GCSE results we like did like an IQ test for like induction and kept doin it until like we score high, which was good cause the assessed course work is pretty much like the same unless we need the teacher to finish it off or whatever, they says it like then correlates, cept for Shazney who was like seein that Ben like regular daytime and so like was forced to withdrawded.”

The Teaching Trade Unions have unanimously acknowledged and championed the gains in the content validity of teacher assessment, stoutly defended the reliability of the assessment decisions of their membership, while simultaneously attempting to defend the profession from the burden inherent in the transfer of the manageability of such ‘high stakes’ evaluation of learner achievement from awarding bodies to teachers. Head-teacher Doris Stokes claims that the introduction of the ‘Check and Correct Hour’ to teacher timetables represents a major leap forward in assessment strategy, although Union Branch Official Reg Smith points out that this used to be called lunch-time.

A spokesman (who declined to be named) for the Tressel Group (the eight remaining financially viable UK Universities) commented that while young people and their teachers were to be congratulated on these positive outcomes, the qualifications themselves were becoming increasingly less useful to the gatekeepers responsible for undergraduate entry. She continued, “we do not doubt the consequential validity of A-level, and have no specific plans to totally abandon the A-level as an entry route, however proof of their achievement is seen as ancillary evidence to support the possession of a bankers draft.”

As part of the current debate the Shadow Minister for Education, last week, outlined a drastic overhaul of A-level grading, that his party would “propose to strive to seek to attempt to implement at some future determinable point, if elected”. The changes are indicated in the table below:

A Level Grade Boundaries (Proposed)

Grade Category






Grade Sub-Category






In addition to this ‘radical’ change in grades awarded it is understood that the plan is to normal distribution reference the actual grade boundaries and determine the proportion of AA grades by the number of university places available. The notion that access to higher education should in any way be rationed by reference to prior educational attainment occupied the vast majority of a boisterous Prime Minister’s Question Time, which was followed by the resignation of the Shadow Minister for Education (labeled ‘Comprehensive Ken’ by the tabloids and notorious as the only member of the House not to be educated at Eton).

The Minister for Education (who sadly passed away last night), yesterday brushed aside the merits of norm referencing for determining relative academic success and progression opportunity, by commenting, while at a dual celebration for his ninety sixth birthday and his young wife’s (Sharon) A-level results (nine grade A’s), that; “from a personal standpoint the phenomenon that those who sit A-levels become ‘relatively’ younger every year is a greater cause for concern to me than the phenomenon that they may have become ‘relatively’ more intelligent!” (Sir Hugh is fondly remembered, both for his great sense of humour and his minor contribution to education, there will a short memorial service commencing 11.00 at St. Bernards Tuesday next, unfortunately, Sharon will not be in attendance as it coincides with the start of her re-sits).

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