A* is (re)born
18 Dec 2015
When A* was introduced into the A-level grading system, there was a fair amount of fuss about it being because top universities needed something to distinguish between the highest performing students: grade inflation being held to blame.
Nowadays though, it seems to have become accepted. We might expect though, given that the A-levels are being reformed, that Ofqual could have re-labelled the grades to remove the annoying *. After all, GCSEs are all being relabelled, so why not A-level?
Well, one good reason is that it would give the impression that students weren't doing so well under the reformed A-levels. But how do we know that the new A*s will be worth the same as the old A*s?
We don't. In fact the way they are being calculated is changing - so they definitely won't be! However, Ofqual says the same proportions of students will get them as before, so that's alright then, provided the cohort doesn't change year on year. Which of course it does, at a school level at any rate.
The new A* will be norm-referenced - which teachers hate - instead of implying a certain standard, which is what, ideally, assessment should be all about: " If we want to maintain standards in the transition from current to reformed qualifications, we believe the best way to do this is to set the A* boundary using predictions based on the cohort’s prior attainment at GCSE," says Dennis Opposs, Ofqual's Standards Chair.
So, a weak GCSE cohort one year leads to a reduced value A* two years later. And how do we know that the cohort is weaker at GCSE? Well, using norm-referenced exams, of course!
This isn't a million miles away from what schools do internally, with predicted grades (except that there, a hefty dose of uncertainty is added via teachers' personal judgements) based on GCSE performance, so if Ofqual is prepared to share the formula used, schools will get a better way to set targets, possibly.
But there's more: the unreformed A-levels will carry on using the old system and in Wales and NI, the old system will stay for the foreseeable, so even if we're convinced that Welsh and NI A-levels and assessments are comparable to English ones, and even though the grades are called the same thing, there can't be any way of knowing whether they're equivalent or not.
Good luck then, employers and universities of the future, presumably you'll find some way of making sense of it all eventually...