How influential are re-takes on today’s A-level students?

Last week, it was announced that Michael Gove wanted Universities to have a big influence on the curricula of A-level exams. With Gove’s requests to Ofqual ringing in university’s ears, it’s key to look at some of the elements that could be changed if the A-level system is changed to facilitate better learning at tertiary (degree) level.

The Russell Group of Universities (the elite in academia and research) would be tasked with setting the questions for exams and altering the syllabus to fit with research by Cambridge Assessment (ongoing, and due for a hefty release at the end of this month).

This research suggests that students are offered too many re-sits too frequently and that an a-level examination system should, as the Guardian put it, “include more open-ended questions and encourage more independent study” in preparation for study at a higher level.

So, me being me, I decided to look at any existing data discussing the effect of re-takes on A-level grades and the culture behind them, in advance of the final findings of the Cambridge Assessment Report at the end of the month.

The origins of the research…

This policy paper (drawn from findings in the ‘Importance of Teaching: Schools White Paper’) outlines the reasons behind the push for reviews of the way the A-level system prepares students for Higher Education. However, this policy paper doesn’t mention the frequency and prevalence of re-takes and the effect this issue has on the reputation of a-levels and the way in which they prepare students for tertiary education. So, why, “for A Levels to be reformed” do they have to “limit the number of re-sits”?

So, I’ll do a little of my own research…

The only research I could find that had a distinct focus on the effect of re-takes on A-level results and the learning experience of college (or 6th form, etc) students was in this QCA (Qualification and Curriculums authority) report from 2007 (the authority are now defunct “as part of the Government’s wider education reforms” with curriculum assessments now performed by the “Standards and Testing Agency (STA)”).

Although the data isn’t too expansive, the a-levels that are looked at show good patterns and effectively map out the effects and prevalence of re-takes, especially when you differentiate between predominantly open-ended, written exams (like English Literature) and exams with a more mixed structure (like Psychology).

For example, take AQA Psychology; Table 5 in the QCA research (page 5) shows the UMS (uniform mark score) increase, on average, per type of institution. This table means that we can work out the total mark gain if a student re-took all six exams once each. And, since we know the percentage of students who took an exam more than once…

Psychology (AQA) State Selective Indie FE 6th form
Mean UMS Improvement (across 6 modules, on a 600 mark subject) 118.2 113.9 108.4 110.9 88
% ‘sitting a unit more than once’ 30.9% 26.3% 35.4% 31.4% 23.3%
Average mark gain ‘per student’ 37 30 38 35 21

(Remember that this assumes that every student that re-took an exam re-took every exam, and that the percentage ‘sitting a unit more than once’ are all assumed to have re-taken only once, which skews the data back and forth. It is also true that the majority of students who re-take modules sit on the F-E boundary or the B-A boundary, so more re-takes will be taken by specific students and the effect of the average mark gain will be amplified when transferred to grade increases)

(Note also that subjects like Math and Science aren’t included; exams which typically include much more specific (or finite) answers will have retakes giving a much higher yield in marks because the focus is more on learning facts rather than writing essay-style questions. This also grows from personal experience of both Math and Chemistry a-levels, for which I took a number of re-takes, so try and trust me on this!)

The findings… ish…

This means that the average student (who took Psychology in 2007) gained around 35 marks as a result of re-takes, which, when the grade boundaries lay 60 marks apart, is a significant leap. However, considering the fact that the actual mean mark improvement nearly hits 120, a student that re-took each module only once would jump nearly two grade boundaries on average.

The QCA research itself summarises the re-sit effect quite well;

“Looking at the change of UM between the first and second attempts of a unit (see Table 5) the benefits of resitting is clear. Across all centre types and subjects, the majority of candidates did better on their second attempt at a unit than they had on their first with the mean change in UM typically being between 15 and 25 marks. With the best result always being counted, there is no gamble associated with resitting units.”

As The Independent wrote in 2009, “(QCA research) also showed the percentage of A grades awarded would have fallen from 25.3 per cent to 21.6 if resits had not been allowed” but this looks like a very small snapshot of the wider effect of re-takes, and barely looks at the issues involved.

So, to put it in context…

I think what’s most important is to look at the culture of re-takes; for example, I went to a 6th form that offer re-takes for free and encouraged them passionately so as to push achievement higher and higher. My local college made students pay for their own re-takes, and so uptake was low.

In certain cases, re-takes were simply a matter of rolling the dice and hoping you did better (like English Language), but for certain subjects (particularly Mathematics), the 2nd year curricula is based heavily on skills learnt in the first year, which means as part and parcel of your second year questions that were once difficult are now second nature. So, a re-take of a first year module can easily yield marks of 90+ out of 100 when initially you were achieving marks of 60 or 70, and this has a huge effect, both on the actual outcome and the pressure placed on you come your final sitting of exams. There is also no drawback; re-taking an exam only carries the 2-hour cost and your best result is counted, so when money isn’t an issue, the majority of students would think, “well, I might as well…”

So, at a 6th form like mine, re-takes weren’t at 30%. They were flying up to 90-95% and the mark increases, as a result, would be vast (mine were, that’s for sure). Offer students re-takes but don’t, for starters, put the cost of doing so on the student. However, when there are students who re-take 3 or 4 times because they know the option is there, then you know there is something wrong with the system and the number of re-takes available must be minimised (and not simply given an absurd ceiling figure, like 6).

The issue is fraught with many, many different topics and areas of discussion, and I genuinely encourage comments so we can talk through the issue and you can challenge what I think, etc.  The wider issue, in which students need to be prepared for higher education in their undertaking of A-level exams, is in itself a talking point that I would like to throw out to the world; what are the aims of a-levels? Is it further education for everyone, predominantly preparation for tertiary education, or simply another layer of schooling?

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