Pupils sitting examinations
Pupils sitting examinations. Ofqual said the confused advice given by four exam boards led to students getting lower grades and may have caused candidates to avoid the subjects. Photograph: David Davies/PA

The marking and setting of modern languages A-levels is to be urgently revised, after an investigation found lapses and failures in the marking of French, Spanish and German that penalised the highest achieving pupils and contributed to the unpopularity of the subjects.

The exams regulator, Ofqual, said the marking schemes and advice given by four exam boards was confused and failed to differentiate between the most able pupils, and so led to students getting lower grades than they may otherwise have received. It also found examples of inconsistent marking that may have led to erratic awarding of grades.

The announcement, which will require changes to be made to the exams by summer 2015, follows joint complaints from universities, teaching unions and independent schools at the way marks were awarded for the most popular modern languages A-levels, with the subjects getting fewer A* grades than many other subjects.

The reputation for lower grades may have caused more able candidates to avoid taking the trio of modern languages, contributing to declines in the numbers of students sitting them at A-level.

Peter Hamilton, headmaster of Haberdashers’ Aske’s boys school, said: “Thanks to the joint persistence of the state and independent schools’ languages associations, Ofqual will now be acting to correct historic injustices that have hugely damaged confidence in these exam grades over recent years.”

This year just 6.6% of candidates were awarded A* in French, compared with 13% for those taking other modern languages such as Italian, Japanese and Mandarin. For Spanish, 6.7% received A* grades, compared with 10.4% of those taking maths.

Glenys Stacey, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said: “It is vital that students, teachers and other users of these qualifications can have confidence in them and know that the results are fair. The changes we’re proposing will do that. Those that should get the higher grades will do so – that’s only fair.”

Ofqual’s reviewers found instances where the reasons for deciding what did or did not constitute a correct answer in the mark scheme were unclear. In one example, Ofqual found that the AQA exam board required candidates to write at least 200 words to answer a question, but failed to give guidance on how to mark answers that fell short.

In another example from the Pearson exam board, Ofqual analysts found markers were expected to distinguish between “clear evidence of extensive and in-depth reading and research” and “clear evidence of in-depth reading and research” in awarded top marks and the next rung down.

In other instances, the requirements for top marks were unrealistically demanding, with only a perfect response qualifying for the highest band of marks.

Hamilton, chair of the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference academic policy committee, said it was important that the changes were made as soon as possible, since the current exams would be used until 2018, when the reformed modern languages A-levels would be introduced.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Oxford Cambridge and RSA (OCR) exam board, said that the improvements were needed, but added: “The recommendations are being fed into the development of new A-levels and we believe that is the right way to make improvements. Any changes made before that should be carefully considered so that students are not disadvantaged and unnecessary risk isn’t introduced into next year’s exams.”

The Guardian