Newest Review: ... still considered highly by Universities such as Oxbridge, LSE, Durham, Bristol and Wawrick. Having spoken to teachers, and looking at pas... more
Are 'A' levels still the educational gold standard?
Member Name: MGirl
Are 'A' levels still the educational gold standard?
Date: 14/08/02, updated on 14/08/02 (98 review reads)
Advantages: Can be used to apply to university, more specialised than GCSE
Disadvantages: Are accused of getting easier
Personally, I would have to say “No”. A-levels alone are simply not worthwhile and I don’t think they ever have been. They are and always have been the entry exams for further education. This doesn’t mean that they’re irrelevant once you get to university though. I know that a lot of recruiters see them as entry examinations; however, this means that should you have a degree, your average blue-chip company is taking your spotty-faced late adolescent efforts more seriously than you realise.
I’ve heard many a recruiter, manager etc. say that A-levels are the quickest way to gauge an applicant’s intelligence. People out there who’ve applied for the milkround jobs may find themselves excluded from applying if they have below 20 points at A-level (usually excluding general studies) and some firms demand better results than that.
So, is this fair? I’ve had many an argument about this on www.doctorjob.co.uk. From the opinions I have canvassed, most people disagree. I have to point out though, that these are people who, for one reason or another, failed to do well at A-level, so naturally they feel peeved.
My opinion is that although you’re only 18 when you take your exams, I think it’s fair to use these as an assessment when you’re 21. Graduate recruitment is likely to be the only time that these exams are looked at closely apart from entering university in the first place. At 18, you should be mature enough to realise that three Es will reflect badly on your CV in the future, I don’t think you can claim immaturity for poor performance (as many people did on doctorjob).
The sad fact is the sheer number of universities confuses recruiters. I think it’s true that not all university degrees are equal, although this should be the case. Some newer universities have been accused of students acquiring higher grades, despite the intake of these plac
es containing people who achieved lower than average grades at A-level. Maybe the teaching is better (and in some new universities, the teaching is excellent) but your average recruiter doesn’t know which are just good at teaching and which are artificially inflating their grades. So what is the best way of distinguishing whether a 2(ii) from an old university is the same as a 2(ii) from a new one? Do they discount all the people with degrees from new universities? After all, for many jobs thousands of people apply and they have to get rid of some of the applicants somehow. In practice, many companies decide to discard people who have low A-level results, irrespective of their degree result.
Do I think this is fair? Well it’s better than being snobbish about the institution people attend. It is actually using an exam, which people have taken under presumably fair conditions (if they weren’t fair then you’re stupid if you didn’t appeal). They don’t, after all ignore exams at university. Some employers such as Unilever don’t mind what grades people get as long as they pass but most blue chip employers require either a 2(ii) or a 2(i) minimum. Frankly after discussing this in the doctorjob forum, I’m fed up with people complaining about being excluded from the recruitment process simply because of their grades. Duh! Everyone knows when they take their A-levels and their finals that people will look at the grades you achieve and judge you on them. Again, if you don’t realise this at the time, you’re daft. There were also people on doctorjob who complained about illness at the time of their A-levels. There is provision made for this, by contacting the board about any mitigating circumstances before the exam, you may be allowed more time, or be marked more leniently.
So what about the argument that A-levels are getting easier? It’s certainly true that some syllabi have been
reduced in content and grades are improving. It’s also true that there are generally a greater range of A-levels open to each student, so with fewer students taking subjects like science (presumably only ones who are gifted in this area doing so), isn’t it fair that the people taking this subject should then receive higher grades? This is a hypothetical example of what might be happening. I’m suggesting this because so called “grade inflation” may not be as a result of subjects getting easier.
Modular A-levels are becoming increasingly popular. I took one modular A-level when I did my exams in 1995. My personal experience was that it was good to have one modular subject but had they all been modular, the pressure throughout the two years at A-level would have been too great. A common misconception is that modular A-levels are easier. With my experience of Maths A-level, we had to achieve a grade of 86% for an A. It’s true that you can retake some modules, however, this increases your workload later on as you’re having to retake exams alongside taking the next ones, so it doesn’t make your life any easier. One criticism is that in modular exams, there is less to learn, so the questions are easier. Hmm, I disagree with this because in subjects like maths, proficiency at the earlier modules was required before you could progress onto the harder modules. As the subject builds in layers anyway, some of the later exams e.g. Pure 2 tested on the earlier modules e.g. Pure 1 because the concepts being tested had built on earlier ideas the class had learned. Why are we bothered anyway? What are we testing? The capacity to learn by rote? No, what we should be testing is the ability to apply concepts and rules. This is unaffected by testing in either modular exams or end of year.
Personally, I liked having a mixture of end of sixth form and modular exams. If you adopt one method over the other,
it seems to negate the beneficial effects. I’m not sure how modular A-levels are organised now but my lower sixth counted for as much as my upper sixth for Maths. Maybe examination boards could adopt a halfway house by producing end of lower sixth exams as well as final exams. In a similar way to university exams, the lower sixth could then contribute 30% of the marks towards the final grade, removing some of the upper sixth pressure without removing the importance of the final exam. I’m not in education though so there are probably 101 reasons why that wouldn’t work.
I don’t think A-levels are getting substantially easier, I think teachers are doing a better job at teaching exam technique and I think some students perform better in modular exams due to a reduction in stress. What some people don’t realise is that formerly, A-levels and O-levels were marked so that a certain percentage achieved an A grade, a certain percentage achieved a B etc. This did not allow an improvement in teaching to be reflected in the nations exam results. Teachers have a hard time. Can’t we accept that at least some of the grade improvement in recent years might be down to them?
In summary, A-levels are no longer the “gold standard” but I don’t think this is a result of “grade inflation”. Rightly or wrongly A-levels are still used by employers, in conjunction with degree result and selection centres, to decide upon a persons intelligence. You cannot expect employers not to use these measures, that is, after all, what exams are for!