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CIFE makes the case for retakes

Article in summary

Although history has moved on - January resits are no longer possible, and resitting individual units may become impossible from 2017 on, this 2010 article by Fiona Pocock makes the case for retakes. She argues that a ban would condemn many worthwhile students to living forever with the consequences of mistakes made during their growing-up years.

Article in detail

Up to 2015, students were still allowed to retake A-level exam units as many times as they liked, with the best results counting. But, some felt that this isn't right, and that it  contributed to 'grade inflation' - the year-on-year improvement in A-level results. In an article in the Times in September 2010, Fiona Pocock, recent Chairman of CIFE put the case for retakes as follows.

"If your football team finishes midway up the table, do you stop supporting it, thinking it can never finish top? If or when it does win the league, do you discount it as a hollow victory because the previous season’s performance was inferior? Of course not. We remain optimistic for those we support. Should we not do the same for young people, promoting constant improvement, just as we do in business? So why ban exam retakes?

Yesterday I was writing a Ucas reference for a young man who had abysmal grades at AS in business studies from his former school, where he had been unhappy. He joined our college just before Easter to complete A2 units and within three weeks his tutor estimated that he would attain high C or low B grades in his A2 units. Overall, after just a little time to get to know him, we felt that this student could be rated as a high-C student. He ended up with an E grade in A-level business studies, which, given his terrible AS results, was a triumph. The A2 units were indeed marked at B and C. This C-grade student is condemned to being graded at E because of his unrepresentative AS results, unless he chooses to retake. His story is not unusual.

Students frequently underachieve at AS. They can be immature, lazy, distracted, frustrated, heartbroken, unwell, just getting to grips with English as a second language. This does not mean that they cannot end up as excellent and worthy A-grade students. The case for retakes centres on giving those students chance to mature and learn from the mistakes of youth.

I spend quite a lot of late August reassuring parents that low grades at AS can be improved and that there is no shame in retaking. In fact, I could argue that all AS units first taken in Year 12 should be retaken so as to give a more accurate reflection of ability. The tests could be seen as simply a practice, a marker, to indicate whether a student is on the right lines. The highest flyers will get nice A grades at AS and this gives an indication about who is a realistic Oxbridge candidate, perhaps. But let’s not dissuade all students from attempting to improve. How demotivating would it be in Year 13 to know that rotten AS grades have already scuppered any chance of attaining top-level grades?

I have seen some remarkable improvements as a result of retakes and, on the whole, these have been justified. Last summer we worked with a young woman who was on her fourth attempt to attain acceptable grades to study law. Her previous results were shockingly low, giving no indication of her true potential. A short time in her company indicated to me that these results were unrepresentative and something had gone very wrong. Indeed it had.

Grades can be inflated a little by persistent retaking, skewing the outcome. That is why universities do not allocate precious places solely on stark grade achievement but look at the personal statement and the school reference. Good teachers know potential just as the true football fan knows his or her team’s place in the league. There can be flukes but, thankfully, our Ucas system permits universities to put achievement in context before promoting or dropping a player unfairly."

Despite the recent shift to linear exams, which makes resitting less easy, the case for retakes remains strong.

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