More A* grades to be awarded in foreign language A-levels

The Telegraph, 26/09/14, Ofqual says A-levels in foreign languages will be overhauled – with more pupils being awarded elite A* grades – following complaints that they were too hard. The joint statement issued from HMC, ASCL and NAHT is referenced.

More pupils will be awarded top grades in foreign language exams after schools complained that A-levels in the subject were too difficult, it was announced today.

Ofqual, the qualifications watchdog, has ordered exam boards to make major changes to French, German and Spanish A-levels to ensure “greater fairness in the grades students receive”.

The reforms – designed for teenagers sitting tests next summer – will require boards to redesign questions and sharpen up the grading process to make sure they more accurately reflect pupils’ abilities.

Current exams were “more effective at measuring the abilities of students achieving the lower grades (D and E)” than giving credit to those expected to score the very top grades, it was claimed.

Ofqual said the changes are likely to result in more pupils being awarded elite A* grades in 2015.

The move follows protests by head teachers stretching back at least a decade over concerns that bright pupils were achieving fewer top marks in foreign languages than in other subjects.

This summer, just 6.6 per cent of A-levels in French were graded A*, while the proportion stood at 7.7 per cent in Spanish and 8.9 per cent in German.

By comparison, other traditionally tough subjects gain a much higher share of top grades, with 17.3 per cent of maths exams graded A* and 26.5 per cent in further maths

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said: “Exam boards need to make sure that assessments are designed in the right way to differentiate fairly between students.

“It is vital that students, teachers and other users of these qualifications can have confidence in them and know that the results are fair. The changes we’re proposing will do that. Those that should get the higher grades will do so – that’s only fair.”

Today, the announcement was welcomed in a joint statement made by the Association of School and College Leaders, the National Association of Head Teachers and the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference.

“After years of concern expressed by state and independent school heads and languages teachers, we are pleased that Ofqual has recognised and will act on these historic unfairnesses,” the statement said. “It is essential that the problem of the too few A* grades compared to other subjects is sorted.”

The perceived difficulty of foreign language A-levels – combined with a move to make the subjects optional at GCSE – has seen them decline in popularity over the last decade.

This summer, just 10,433 pupils took an A-level in French. It was the lowest number on record and 43 per cent down on the total 14 years ago. Only 7,601 pupils took Spanish and 4,187 studied German.

Ofqual’s inquiry found that many exams were “not effective in differentiating between students of different abilities, especially between the most able”.

Serious problems were detected with the way exam papers were marked, with examiners even unclear about “what did or did not constitute a correct answer” in some cases.

It was claimed that students actually received “very high” marks for speaking even though performance in other parts of the subject – such as listening and writing – were often “surprisingly weak”.

The way marks were calculated by exam boards meant that the very top grades were hard to achieve. In general, the exams were “ineffectively targeted meaning that they were more effective at measuring the abilities of students achieving the lower grades (D and E)", Ofqual said.

Written exams must be changed in time for pupils sitting them in summer 2015. Changes to the assessment of speaking will be required in later years.

By Graeme Paton, The Telegraph. Read the full article © The Telegraph (subscription may be required).