Research and analysis

Maintaining GCE A level standards: Baker, Sutherland & McGaw (2002)

A research paper reviewing quality assurance arrangements for A level standards, originally published by QCA.


Maintaining GCE A level Standards: The findings of an independent panel of experts

This file may not be suitable for users of assistive technology. Request an accessible format.

If you use assistive technology (such as a screen reader) and need a version of this document in a more accessible format, please email Please tell us what format you need. It will help us if you say what assistive technology you use.



Following numerous interviews with QCA staff, awarding body representatives, school personnel and university staff, and after reviewing documents and data, the panel arrived at the following conclusions.

  1. There is no scientific way to determine in retrospect whether standards have been maintained. Therefore, attention should be placed on ensuring the accuracy, validity and fairness of the system from now on.
  2. It is our considered judgement that QCA is doing a commendable job to assure the quality of the A level examinations.
  3. The awarding bodies are providing a good level of quality assurance within the very demanding timetable of the examination system.
  4. Public policy and common perception may be in conflict on some points. In particular, the separate goals of improving schools and levels of student performance, and encouraging more students to pursue university study are at odds with the view that high A level grades must be limited to a very small proportion of candidates.
  5. Some of the A level examination procedures might be improved but they would either add cost or time to the traditional process.

Key recommendations

  1. QCA should adopt a proactive research stance in order to collect information that will bear on the technical quality evidence for A level examinations and standards. Three types of investigations are suggested:
    • short-term studies of the comparability of examination questions and psychometric properties of examinations
    • ad hoc studies of the quality of marking and the use of uniform marks vs. grades
    • long-term studies investigating the validity of the A level examinations in predicting university performance
  2. QCA should develop a strategic plan to ensure that methods can be employed to document the maintenance of standards in the future.
  3. QCA should manage its role in a way that supports the examination process, exhibiting both transparency and accountability in its methods.
  4. QCA should work to minimise unpredictability in requirements of the awarding bodies (and of schools and students). Imposition of new requirements with unreasonable timescales should be avoided.
  5. QCA should not require changes that affect examination provision other than in a timely manner based on a clearly advertised schedule.
  6. QCA should be aggressive in communicating with policy makers about the feasibility of their expectations, in particular when it is not possible for the system to deliver what is required on the timeline envisaged.
  7. QCA should employ a convening function to air issues associated with standards in key areas, such as mathematics and science.
  8. QCA should expand its communications programme to help the public and the profession understand the benefits and limits of its testing programmes and of any modifications being introduced.
Published 15 January 2002