How exams are changing header graphicHow exams are changing header graphicIn association with WJEC, Pearson Edexcel, AQA and OCRIn association with WJEC, Pearson Edexcel, AQA and OCR
We have worked with UK exam boards and the Joint Council for Qualifications (JCQ) to produce this guide. The JCQ represents the UK's six largest exam boards.
The ways A-levels and AS-levels are marked is changing.

There are changes to the types of questions you get asked, the exam papers you sit and any coursework or practical elements.

We spoke to Michael Turner, director general at JCQ, to get answers to your questions on what's happening with how A-levels are assessed.

Will A-level subjects still have coursework?

Yes and no. No, because the word ‘coursework’ is no longer being used when talking about the reformed A-level and AS-level. It's been replaced by the term ‘non-examination assessment’.

The general principle underlying the new A-levels is that assessment should be by exam unless there are essential skills and knowledge in a subject that are impossible to assess in an exam.

But for quite a few subjects, including English literature and history, non-examination assessment is still part of the course.

"The term 'coursework' only applies to legacy GCE unitised AS and A-level qualifications, ELC and Project qualifications," adds Turner. "Non-examination assessments apply to the new GCE and GCSE specifications."

More on A-level exam changes:

How A-level course changes will affect you

Changes to A-level resits and reviews explained

Back to exam reform home page

How are science practicals changing?

Practical work still plays a part in all science AS and A-levels. However in the reformed A-levels it is not graded. Instead students simply 'pass' or 'fail' on their practical skills.

"In GCE biology, chemistry and physics, practical work is now assessed separately in an endorsement for each subject," says Turner.

"The endorsement checks that each candidate has attained the required practical skills for competency at A-level. Endorsements will be graded pass/fail but do not contribute to the grades of the main qualification."

Will questions be different?

Yes, questions will be different from the old A-level and AS-levels to match the new content. At the same time a lot of the old content will still be relevant so there should be some familiar topics on the new papers.

To prepare for these changes you need to check specimen papers and other support material from your exam board.

"Exam questions will be written for the new AS and A-level exams in line with the new course content, structure and government’s syllabus requirements," says Turner.

"They will be looking for answers in line with the new mark schemes demonstrating the skills and knowledge you have acquired during the new course in a level of detail appropriate to the qualification.

"However, as some subject content will remain constant - for example Shakespeare won’t be writing any new plays - it is possible that some questions in some subjects may appear similar to those used for previous qualifications.

"This doesn’t mean that model answers from previous years will help you. Always check the current mark scheme for the subject you are sitting to understand what will and what won’t get you marks."

How will grade boundaries be decided?

Examiners look at a range of answers from the current and previous years’ exams. They also study the GCSE results of the year group along with other indicators that help them judge likely performance. Their job is to make sure the standard of each grade remains the same each year.

Examiners accept that in the first year or two of a new specification students will have less access to past papers and resources and teachers will be less experienced, so they allow for this when setting grade boundaries.

"Examiners use a combination of technical evidence and the work of candidates to ensure standards are the same year on year," says Turner.

"In the first year of the qualification technical evidence is given greater weight in order to ensure that the new cohorts in each subject are not disadvantaged as a result of the new content being less familiar to teachers."

How will A*s be calculated?

The way A*s are awarded will change in the reformed A levels. The level for A* will be set by senior examiners after studying a sample of students’ exam papers and looking at the previous proportion of students achieving this grade. In the first years of the new qualifications it’s likely that the proportions achieving A* will be similar to previous years.

"A*s will be calculated based on how your year group performed in their GCSEs," says Turner. "Unlike the old system, performances in AS-level assessments will not contribute to the grades awarded to students at A-level. This is true of all grades including A*."

What is UMS and does it still exist?

In the old modular A-level system, raw marks were translated into something called a uniform mark scale (UMS).

Now the system is linear and all the exams have to be taken at the end of the course so UMS is no longer needed. The marks shown on results statements will be the actual marks achieved.

"UMS will no longer apply to the reformed AS and A-level qualifications," says Turner.

"The UMS system was developed to allow comparison of unit outcomes from different examination series to ensure that candidates were not advantaged by the series in which a unit was sat.

"As all components are now taken at the end of the qualification the UMS is no longer required. In linear subjects, subject grade boundaries can be adjusted to take into account any differences in demand year on year."

What can I use for exam practice when there are no past papers?

You can use the specimen papers and mark schemes from the exam board websites. Sometimes it can be helpful to look at the specimen questions on the websites of other boards. Your teachers might also have access to other questions – ask them.

"Some of the questions from the old spec will still be relevant but do be careful as the styles of questioning will change," says Turner.

"There are specimen papers and mark schemes available on the exam board websites."