What's the point of taking AS-levels anymore?
There may still be value in the "pointless" qualification. Source: Shutterstock

In 2015, the UK government “decoupled” AS-levels from the A-level. This means AS-level results no longer count towards overall A-level grades.

As a result, less schools started offering the qualification and data from Ofqual (Office of Qualifications) and Examinations Regulation) last May showed entries to sit AS-levels had fallen by almost 60 percent last year.

The lack of interest to take a qualification that isn’t compulsory is understandable. But new research shows there might be a benefit to it after all.

The new analysis from the OCR exam board found that those who had taken an AS-level in 2016 ended up with better A-level grades. OCR stands for Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations, one of England, Wales and Northern Ireland’s five main examination boards which sets examinations and awards qualifications, including GCSEs and A-levels.

According to TES, the board said that “contrary to the perceived limitations of reformed AS-levels”, research based on the National Pupil Database “identified a positive”.

Looking at A-level grades for students in 2017 who had taken an AS-level in 2016, researchers found that grades were “slightly higher than for those students who had not taken the AS-level first”.

The analysis focused on four subjects: biology, English literature, fine art and psychology.

For biology, the proportion of “AS + A-level” candidates getting a minimum grade C and minimum grade A were 4.7 and 1.8 percentage points higher than their “A-level only” peers.

For psychology, the proportion of pupils getting a grade C and above at A-level was 5.9 percentage points higher for AS-level takers compared to non-AS-level takers. The proportions of “AS + A-level” candidates achieving grade A and above and grade A*  were also higher by 2.9 and 0.7 percentage points respectively, compared to their “A-level only” peers.

Fine arts and literature did not show similar trends, however.

“Non-exam assessment in fine art, and the less hierarchical structure of knowledge development in the English literature course, may be responsible for minimising the performance benefit of taking the AS,” researchers said.

The decoupling was part of the reforms made to AS and A-levels in England after key stakeholders raised concerns that the qualifications were failing in their primary purpose, which is to adequately prepare students for degree-level study. As anticipated, this resulted in a decline in entries for AS qualifications.

Will these new findings on AS-level benefits reverse the drop in applications? It’s possible, but unlikely considering how these reforms have implicated the pre-university qualification.

In a government report, some schools reported less motivation “than previous cohorts because their results no longer count towards their A levels”, also claiming they have admitted lower ability students who were not carrying the subject on to A-level.

In other research by OCR, teachers cited “practical concerns about AS levels; the variability of co-teachability from subject to subject, insufficient funding and a squeeze on teaching time”.

“As soon as they stopped counting towards the A-level, they lost all their value for us,” said one Vice-Principal of a sixth form college.

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