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Aug 12, 2023


‘It’s time to act on A-level reform’

It’s the same every year: while students nervously await their A-level results, debates about the value and merits of A levels rise to the surface.

But given that this happens every year and yet there seems to be no political will to change things, perhaps the time has come for universities and schools to work together to force reform.

After all, it’s widely acknowledged in many parts of the university sector that A levels are too narrow and predictable.

They suit a handful of courses - students transitioning to natural sciences at university with A levels in chemistry, physics and maths, for example. But these cases are few and far between.

Many faculty heads complain that the kind of exam questions students practise endlessly for A levels do not set them up well for university learning. Indeed, for many subjects, the first year of university is one of unlearning the habits that A levels entrench.

It’s not an easy transition, and so it’s perhaps little wonder that we at the London Interdisciplinary School (LIS) are finding that there is very little correlation between a student’s A-level results and their first-year university performance.

It’s telling, too, that compared with peer jurisdictions, our assessment methods are extremely outdated. Assessment providers in Australia and New Zealand, for example, have progressed not just on digitisation but on assessing higher-order capabilities.

Given all this, why does nothing change? 

Government and university leaders will say they are stuck. Universities won’t base admissions on some other means unless they can be sure all students can access it; the government won’t fund provision of a new test unless all universities accept it.

So, how do we escape this inertia and ensure we assess students in a way that properly prepares them for the academic challenges and opportunities of higher education?

Part of the solution lies in universities themselves, and at least a critical number being willing to break the mould and take a more innovative approach to admissions.

After all, universities can already make contextualised offers, meaning that students with less opportunity to learn could be exempt from a new expectation. Moreover, some universities already make use of alternative assessments, such as subject aptitude tests or portfolio-based admissions for courses in the arts.

At LIS, as part of our efforts to change things, we interview candidates using two formats: a case study to evaluate quantitative and qualitative problem solving, and a mindset interview to assess curiosity, resilience and interests.

The idea is to ensure we can properly assess a candidate who may have underperformed in or been turned off by the more formulaic nature of qualification-based learning.

Teachers from numerous schools have told us they appreciate our interview process as it prepares students for the real world of work where they’ll have to interview, and they value our focus on individuality beyond academic metrics.

However, working like this means interviews are time intensive and they have their own issues with biases. This is why we’re really interested in other forms of assessment that could allow young people to show what they can do with their knowledge.

Some of the pieces of an approach already exist. For example, the Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) is an opportunity for students to take subject-based learning in a new direction.

Combined with methods such as adaptive comparative judgement, which allows for more holistic assessment of diverse products, the EPQ might be elevated to become a more important part of admissions decisions.

Currently, there is too little sector-wide understanding of what this qualification can represent - although this may change as research points towards the potential link between taking the EPQ and better outcomes at university.

We’re also working alongside several universities, schools and employers as part of Rethinking Assessment, looking at a variety of alternative assessment approaches.

Changing an entrenched system may sound impossible, but the experience of Australia’s New Metrics for Success, several years ahead in development, shows that with the right expertise, a university-schools partnership can develop radical new assessment approaches that others are prepared to adopt.

The approaches include systematic ways to evidence complex competencies that are made up of different knowledge and skills, such as communication, collaboration or showing agency in learning.

The International Big Picture Learning Credential, which is underpinned by some of the same assessment methods, is now accepted by 17 universities around Australia.

We should remember that in our history, it is schools and universities, not governments, who have led the way in designing qualifications: in 1873, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge responded to lobbying from schools to create school-leaving certificates.

It is time the education sector worked together again to create the assessment innovation we need.

Amelia Peterson is head of learning and teaching at the London Interdisciplinary School

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‘It’s time to act on A-level reform’

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A tough transitionSet in our waysPushing innovationNew ideas