Reforms to A level, GCSE and regulation proposed

US style SATS test for HE entrance?

Sir Richard Sykes, the former rector of Imperial College, London was commissioned by the  shadow Education Secretary Michael Gove  to head a Review, which has just reported,  to consider the future of the English qualifications and assessment system in schools, specifically in relation to academic qualifications.  The background context to the review was the proposition that confidence in the qualifications and assessment system has been diminishing for many years. The usefulness of the system has been eroded by the politicisation of assessment outcomes, by universities’ loss of confidence in A levels as a certificate of readiness for university-level study, by employers’ loss of confidence in GCSEs and A levels as certification of relevant knowledge and skills, and by the disproportionate burden placed by external assessment on pupils, teachers and schools. The Review reiterated the obvious that “the pre-eminent role of schools should be to educate.” However many of those who gave evidence commented that a prescriptive assessment-driven curriculum, the examinations framework and the nature of the measures used and targets set by government have forced teachers to abandon education (in its true sense) for easily measurable proxies. There is an obsession with measurement, setting quantitative targets and compiling league tables, as though what cannot be measured numerically has no value and should have no place in education. Yet the best things in education often cannot readily be measured in this way.

The Review states “We hold the optimistic view that an increased emphasis on education in its true sense, with a correspondingly reduced emphasis on testing, is not merely entirely compatible with higher educational standards, but is a precondition for them. We therefore present a discussion and a set of recommendations which if adopted would, we believe, help to redress the balance between education and assessment”  As University entrance examinations, A levels must primarily do two things – indicate how much candidates know and understand, and provide a means for selective universities to accept one candidate over another. But Sir Richard’s team concluded that A-levels were no longer “fit for purpose” in determining university entrance.

The Review said that A levels lacked depth, citing a recent Reform think tank report. “The usefulness of the system has been eroded by… universities’ loss of confidence in it as a certificate of readiness for university-level study,” it said. As a result, it recommended that pupils could in future skip AS-levels – the exam worth half an A-level that is taken by most youngsters at the end of the first year of the sixth-form. The universal practice of pupils sitting four A-level units for each subject during their course would be scrapped, and examination boards would be free to return to the old system in which students were graded according to their performance in the final exam. It recommended too that the Government should consult with universities on the benefits and challenges of developing a Standardised University Admissions Test, to supplement A level and other grades and assist with ranking decisions. Michael Gove, the Shadow Schools Secretary, said: “The current A level offer doesn’t provide universities with the degree of precision that they require when it comes to ranking students by ability.” The Conservatives will consult universities over the introduction of an aptitude test, similar to the US SATs, for all prospective university students, Gove believes that it may not be necessary to distinguish between students through the extra test, provided that the other A-level reforms outlined in the report, such as giving universities a greater role in devising the exam, were successful.

Cambridge Assessment is one of a number of critics of SATS type testing saying it ignores the differing requirements of different universities and different courses and would be likely to encourage narrow teaching to the test, adding to the burden of assessment while giving rise to a cramming industry. Significantly, in this respect, in the States although SATS are supposed to be  designed to measure students potential, a cottage industry has grown up to prepare students to sit them. The US is also in the process of   moving from the SAT format towards the curriculum-based Advanced Placement award – which is much the same as A levels.

Since universities are the major users of A levels, they should have considerable input into their content and their structure. The Review said that Awarding bodies should, in consultation with universities and employers, be free to develop new qualifications appropriate to the needs of these key user groups. This will be music to the ears of the exam boards who have been lobbying for a demand led system for years. The Review  noted that  the new Pre-U qualification, recently launched by Cambridge Assessment, after consultation with schools and academics, aims to provide a linear qualification which ‘challenges students to show not only a keen grasp of their subject, but also lateral, critical and contextual thinking’. It remarked that “ It is disappointing that many universities no longer believe that A levels test these skills, and that there was therefore high demand for the Pre-U.”

GCSEs would be radically overhauled, too, and maths and English would be the only compulsory externally assessed exams for 16-year-olds. Too many schools had been putting pupils in for “easy” options – such as vocational subjects deemed to be worth between two and four GCSEs – to boost their league table rankings.

Sir Richard said the GCSE had been “so devalued nobody had any faith in it any more”. In future, schools would cease to be ranked on their A-level point scores and the focus on the percentage of pupils getting five A* to C grade GCSEs would go, too. Instead, they would be ranked according to the universities their students went on to. Gove stopped short of sharing Sir Richard’s view that the name GCSEs should be abolished.  The Tories would also stop vocational qualifications such as BTecs being ranked as worth a certain number of GCSEs for the process of creating league tables, which they say leads to schools pushing pupils into such options inappropriately, purely to boost their ratings.  The Review also recommends appointing a fully-independent commission to review the national curriculum every five or 10 years.   The Tories have welcomed most of the recommendations.  The Government believes that current reforms strengthening A levels through, for instance, more essay style questions and bringing in the A* grade are sufficient to ensure it is seen as a robust qualification.

Sykes Report


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