A-Levels have always been a fiasco

Written by Arthur Mytum, 24.

Anger and frustration swept across England and Wales on Thursday as thousands of students impacted by coronavirus opened their A-Level results.


With no exams taking place, marks were given based on an algorithm that used mock exam results and teacher predictions and then moderated those with the school’s previous results. The outcome was 39.1% of students were downgraded from their mock or teacher predictions.


The Scottish government were pushed into a hasty U-turn the week before after their own algorithm used a school’s previous results to award students, meaning those from worse-performing areas - that directly correlates to lower socio-economic conditions - were given lower grades.


In light of this, the English government created a ‘triple lock system’ meaning students who disagreed with their results could appeal to have their mock result take its place or they could take an exam in October.


However, several hours after releasing its criteria for the appeal process, Ofqual suspended the process with no reason given. Then on Monday morning, after days of pressure from students, universities, parents and the general public the English government announced it’s own U-turn.


Exam grades for A-Levels and GSCE’s this coming Thursday will now be based on teacher predictions or the algorithm if it gave a higher grade.


So why did the government try to apply this ill-fated algorithm in the first place?

They saw what happened in Scotland both in terms of the fall in grades and the anger at a system that punishes those from more disadvantaged backgrounds. Was this purely a political misjudgement or an intentional attempt to limit social mobility?


The answer is that the education system relies on the results of standardised testing to justify its legitimacy but also to serve as the entrance system for University. It’s less about imparting knowledge and more about ticking boxes.


The A-Level system is incongruous

A-Levels are hoops you have to jump through. Universities use them to try and get the strongest performing students but ultimately they want as many students as possible because that means as much funding as possible. Especially as the number of students applying this year has plummeted as you have to pay £9,000 for some online lectures.


The majority of Russell Group universities ask for triple A’s simply because everyone else does. If they asked for lower grades, they would look like a worse choice. Half of these triple-A courses then go up for clearing anyway.


As a university graduate, my A-Levels are now largely redundant and if you are entering the workforce your A-Levels show you are capable of grasping and understanding key concepts but what’s more important to an employer is your work ethic, professionalism and after that first job, your previous work experience.


In the face of falling university applications and an economy plummeting into recession surely the government would try to give students whose education has already been hampered by Covid-19 the best results possible?


But that would require listening to teachers and not awarding a final grade arrived through a standardised system that applies the same conditions to everyone.


Standardised testing needs to be tested

Standardised testing is already a questionable form of evaluating academic success and knowledge. A few years ago the Conservative government in England moved the A-Level syllabus further away from coursework and put more importance on a final 2-hour exam to evaluate a students ‘intelligence’ and academic ability.


As a young man who took his A-Levels six-seven years ago, I can’t remember much of what I had to learn before the exam. But in those months before the exams, I was making flashcards and memorising as much as I could.


That’s an issue. Standardized testing in many ways measures your ability to memorise. It may well vary from subject to subject how applicable that is but ultimately exams have methods of answering questions that get you marks and that’s what you need to learn to do well.


Is that the best method of testing academic intelligence, the only form of intelligence our education system gives any importance to?

Because the government puts so much weight into this mode of testing only to suddenly have it taken away, they had to create another method to apply to teacher predictions and mock results - which are marked by teachers.


They couldn’t accept that the teachers who work with the pupils every day and know their strengths, weakness, work ethic and abilities might have a good idea of how well they know the subject material. Because that would undermine the theoretical and political theory that underpins our education system.


The neoliberal marketisation of education now sees schools compete against each other for funding, success is determined by exam results. Efficiency is equated with corporatisation meaning teaching must be done through formalised lesson plans that commodify learning into a measurable and target delivering process. Rather than a creative way of imparting knowledge and enthusiasm.


Such an ideological belief needs to culminate in a standardised test that pits all students against each other. Relying on the teachers isn’t standardised. Do you know what is? An algorithm.


This resulted in the Conservative government applying an algorithm that enforces a final layer of standardisation by predicting the result of exams based on institutions previous results but takes no account of individual performance or ability.


This whole fiasco could have been avoided if the government had judged the situation accordingly. But the idea of not applying a formalised process that simulates the competition of market forces would undermine the whole concept of the education system.


In the end, the system that attempted to ‘standardise’ simply punished those pupils who worked the hardest but were from a poorer background.


Perhaps the algorithm applied market forces too efficiently

So if you are reading this a student who was downgraded. Hopefully, you now have a grade that better represents your ability. But take some consolation that ultimately A-Levels are a box you’re forced to tick and dont reflect your true intelligence or self-worth. Remember that the best things you learnt at school can’t be measured in a test.


This contribution was written by Arthur Mytum, 24. Visit his profile here to find out more about the voice behind the words.

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