Terminal Examinations

Structural Shake Up

The changes to GCSE and A Level exam structure has seen a move back to terminal assessment, stirring up strong opinions on either side. The AS Level was introduced in 2000 as a means of broadening the curriculum from 16 to 19, with traditional two-year A Levels split in half. The intention was to bring the British system more into line with Europe and the baccalaureate model. Each subject was further broken down into a series of modules that students could resit in order to improve their total mark. The aim was to allow students to study a wider range of subjects at a higher level, with many individuals choosing to drop down from four to three subjects at A2 level.

However, from September 2015, AS Levels will be taught as stand alone qualifications that will not contribute towards the overall A Level grade. Their sole purpose will remain to encourage more curriculum breadth, with the possibility that some will be designed as a supplementary subject to the first year of an A Level. The full A Levels will be entirely linear, taken over a two year period with students sitting exams at the end of the course. The first subjects to be affected will include those most requested by the Russell Group Universities including: English, History, Geography, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, the first end of course assessments for these taking place in 2017.

Deeper Learning

Some have welcomed the return to a longer, more in-depth structure, free from constant focus on the next set of exams. When AS Levels were implemented originally, critics had argued the additional exams were getting in the way of teaching, with many schools claiming they felt pressured to abandon normal lessons for several weeks each term just to prepare students for assessment. In some cases, the first set of exams were only four months after the start of the course. There was also a sense that offering modular exams with multiple resits throughout the course led to confusion when it came to universities distinguishing between the brightest students. Universities continued to make offers based on three full A Level grades, and the majority of students continued to take only four AS subjects, negating the idea that AS Level would broaden the curriculum.

Proponents of the linear A Levels have said their students will now have more opportunity to explore subjects in greater depth, without the pressure of exams. The present system means that some children sit three years of external exams in a row, with some subjects allowing resits of the same exam two or three times during the two years of study. Rather than focusing on the more difficult concepts of the A2 modules, students were revising AS content in order to boost their marks. These changes will therefore improve the quality of learning and allow students to spend more time and effort gaining a deeper understanding of content, linking material that may have seemed isolated when taught as part of a separate module.

A Performance Check

Not everyone is pleased to see the back of the split A Level. Some had come to view the modular exams as a method of assessing performance at certain stages of the course, and therefore a motivational aid for students who may have otherwise waited until the end of the two years to panic over potential grades. The modular exams encouraged continuous focus and revision of subject material. Although it could be argued that the focus was on memorisation rather than real understanding.

Additionally, government advisors have warned that the A Level reform could have a detrimental effect on the numbers of students choosing to study mathematics, a subject that has seen a large increase in popularity since the AS Levels came into effect. The A Level Content Advisory Board (ALCAB) stated that mathematics would likely be greatly affected by the changes due to it’s sequential nature. Further mathematics would be especially at risk, as the subject was designed to supplement mathematics (usually taken as a fourth A Level) and allows students to choose a limited number of units from one of the two subjects. ALCAB stated that careful consideration would be needed to ensure that students were not put off taking further mathematics at AS Level, as the subject has specific value for individuals planning to study quantitative degrees and is a requirement for entry to many of the courses at top universities.

Careful Planning Required

As with past exam reforms, success is likely to hinge on the careful preparation and implementation of the changes. With this in mind, ALCAB has recommended a staged approach during which the effects of the restructuring on subject uptake, student achievement and teaching can be monitored and adjustments made if necessary. Continued communication with schools and all others involved will be required to ensure that the changes do not cause a reoccurrence of the problems witnessed when the AS Levels were originally brought in.


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