A-level language marks improve after criticism exams were too hard for non-native speakers

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The number of top grades awarded in language A-levels has gone up following criticism it was too hard for non-native speakers to do well.

Today’s results show that 41.4 per cent of German A-level exams were awarded an A or A*, compared with 39.6 per cent last year.

In French, the top pass rate was up, with 39 per cent scoring the top grades compared with 37.3 last year.

In Spanish 36.9 per cent of students scored an A or A*, while last year the figure was just 34.4 per cent.

Mark Bedlow, director of regulation at OCR exam board, said the number of people taking modern foreign language A-levels was still declining but the decline was slowing and in Spanish it had been reversed. 

Sharon Hague, senior vice president at Pearson, said there are a “whole host of other languages” that students take at A-level which are thriving — unlike modern foreign languages like French or German.

Today’s results come after exam regulator Ofqual made changes to help non-native speakers do better.

Exam boards were asked to increase the proportion of students achieving a grade A and above by one percentage point in French, German and Spanish A-levels.

Ofqual stepped in after research showed native speakers are far more likely to score top grades than non-native speakers. Teachers have often warned that it is more difficult to get a good grade in language exams, and the number of teenagers studying the subjects has dropped dramatically.

The number of entries for French and German A-level dropped by more than a quarter between 2011 and 2016. And applications for European language degree courses have also fallen by a quarter in the past five years.

Malcolm Trobe, deputy general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “We welcome any change that will deal with what we call ‘harsh grading’ of modern languages and one of the factors that imnpacts on the grading is native speakers.

“It’s still more difficult to get high grades in modern languages than in other subjects. This has implications for the take-up of languages. It is a vicious circle because if we are not producing enough modern linguists, then we’re not producing enough language teachers.”

A-levels in modern languages are designed to test the mastery of the language, vocabulary, grammar and fluency. 

They also have a literature component, and native speakers are thought to have a clear advantage.


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