Fewer A-level retakes may result in ‘worse’ grades but also ‘better’ students

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August 16, 2014 by Paul Goldsmith

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It used to be that beneath the ‘good’ news of constantly improving A-level grades was some rather ‘bad’ news of a decrease in university entrance for poorer students and an increase in the uptake in what were called ‘softer’ less academically rigorous A level subjects in order to get those better results.

As the impact of Michael Gove’s reforms added to the introduction of tuition fees starts to hit home we got the ‘bad news’ of falling A-level grades on Thursday underpinned by what many would consider ‘good news’ of better uptake of university places By the socially disadvantaged, an increase in university spaces overall as universities were better funded and were also allowed to take as many pupils with ABB and above, leaving spaces elsewhere, and a higher uptake of more academically rigorous subjects like English, Maths and the Sciences.

But whilst I have written earlier about the encouraging statistics for university applications for those from poorer backgrounds, I would I like to praise something else. One of the reasons for the drop in A-level grades will be the reduction in opportunities to retake A level modules.

Gove scrapped the January exam sessions. This means that this year, if you wanted to retake exams you took at AS, you had one chance to do it, which was in the summer. This is a step towards what will happen from June 2015, which is that all A levels will be examined ‘linearly’, meaning all exams will be at the end of the two years of the course with no retakes.

This in my view addresses a rather farcical situation we were in with A-levels where what might have been a well-intentioned move to introduce AS levels as a stepping stone from GCSE up to A-levels became a way through which grade inflation was facilitated. This led to a very misleading situation for employers and also a ‘retake’ culture which isn’t helpful in creating responsible students.

To explain the he problem with the situation that existed before Gove took over, imagine you were a recruiter for an organisation and you had one space left on the shortlist. You have two CVs in front of you which you rate equally highly apart from one difference. Candidate A has ABB and Candidate B has AAB for their A-levels. Given A-levels are supposedly the “gold standard” you decide to use this to separate the candidates and plump for Candidate B. Fair enough right?

OK – how about this: Candidate A took each exam once in June of his upper sixth and got ABB. Candidate B, however got AAB after 6 retakes for each subject. He took his first AS exam (unit 1) in January of lower sixth then retook that unit 3 times (1 per exam period following that). He took his second AS exam (unit 2) in June of lower sixth then retook that twice in the following exam periods. He then took his first A2 exam (unit 3) in January of upper sixth and retook that in June of that year, along with the three other units of his subjects.

If you had seen Candidate Bs results from their first attempt at each unit you would have seen DDD. But you didn’t see those results, you saw the best results from all the retakes. It constantly shocks me how few people know this. Now which candidate would you choose?

This interim step that Gove brought in was to cancel the January exam session, which also meant that pupils couldn’t take exams in January of their lower sixth. This means that in all A-levels only two retakes were allowed, instead of a possible six. That makes a difference, but when we all go linear, there will be no retakes. I argue that that will be good for students too.

Let me ask you this question now: Who do you want in your organisation – a student with AAB who thinks that they should get a second or third chance at every task they have to do? Or a student with ABB who has been taught how to do their best first time? Easy one to answer isn’t it?

The problem with AS levels and retakes is that pupils know they can retake. This can mean that they put a lot less into their work in the first year of sixth form, safe in the knowledge that they can get another go. Not only can this produce some shocking results, and shocks when those same students apply for university, but I would argue that it can make teachers slightly lazier too, as they know that their students have another chance. Also, it means that students just do exam after exam from the start of year 11, rather than having time to get into their subject.

Now, there are arguments for retakes. Firstly that it takes a while to get used to A level work, such is the gap between GCSE and A level. My answer to that is that two years is enough time to close that gap. Also, we should improve GCSEs, not make A levels easier. Second issue is that it is hard having so many exams at the end of the upper sixth. But if you revise as you go along and subject units are written so they relate to each other better (another Gove wish), then that would be less of a problem. Third ss sue is that a student could be ill or have a personal issue that lowers performance on the day, and that could make retakes useful. My answer to that is that this happens rarely and if it does we need to sharpen up the system that addresses those unfortunate events.

A-levels are hard. They should be hard. They are supposed to be the “gold-standard”. The introduction of the A* grade has helped, because it was becoming too easy to get an A, particularly with retakes. I feel that instead of bending over backwards to make them easier to succeed and mixing up grade inflation with academic improvement, we should be helping to prepare students for the real world. So I welcome the disappearance of retakes, even if it makes my life harder.

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One thought on “Fewer A-level retakes may result in ‘worse’ grades but also ‘better’ students

  1. You make some good points here but, in my view, and in my experience you have missed the point of the retake system. In your hypothetical scenario, I would always pick the student with the higher grades because they have demonstrated they know the most about the subjects they studied. If they got DDD first time around, but ended up with AAB, they improved dramatically over the year. They have used the retake system to refocus, change their strategy, learn more about the learning process and about themselves. They have learned something about the subject because in year one they had a D grade understanding but by year two they have an A grade understanding. They will be an altogether better candidate.

    I see this year on year in my own students, the retake sessions are fantastic learning opportunities. The students use what they didn’t know first time round to improve second time round and also learn more about how to study and what works for them. Overall under the retake system, students learn more material, in my view.

    The point about “revising through the year” is valid, but what if students don’t have this skill when they are 16? It isn’t really taught in schools before this, so if they do it is either luck or due to some other factor such as parental influence that may be absent in many candidates. Using the modular system students learn how to learn.

    Finally, yes, grades will fall without the retake system – but this is because we will have succeeded in teaching our young people less about their subjects at A level. Is that the aim of the education system?

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