Thursday, August 16, 2007

Easier exams make it harder for A level students

First, let's get the obligatory photograph out of the way.

Thank you. As is well known, all A level students look like this.

How did the results of A levels - and to a lesser extent SATs and other public examinations - come to be seen as a barometer of national well-being. When I was at school, these exams were essentially a private matter. You were bright or you weren't, you worked hard or you didn't, and you more or less got what you deserved. Now great issues of public policy are assumed to be involved.

The explanation, I suspect, is twofold. First, the results come out at just the right time for a 24/7 media world that is desperate for content in the summer holiday months. Second, the collapse of the idea that politicians' role is to run the economy has led them to seek other areas of national life to colonise, and education has become one of them.

Part of this annual festival of concern about exam results is a ritualised debate. One side says they are examinations are getting easier: the other says that students are working harder than ever before.

I have come to the conclusion that both sides are right.

The evidence that exams are getting easier comes in a report (pdf format) prepared for the Office of National Statistics.

As Burning our Money writes of the report:
Its approach is to compare the A Level performance of pupils with the same pupils' performance in a standardised test of academic ability known as ITDA (International Test of Developed Academic Ability). The data has been collected every year since 1988, and currently covers 1400 schools ...

Thus, for English Lit, pupils with the same ITDA score are now getting an A Level over one grade higher, and for Biology, nearly two grades higher. For Maths, the increase is an astonishing three and a half grades. Overall, the change is about two grades, as reported.

Thus, for English Lit, pupils with the same ITDA score are now getting an A Level over one grade higher, and for Biology, nearly two grades higher. For Maths, the increase is an astonishing three and a half grades. Overall, the change is about two grades, as reported.The authors of the study conclude:

"A level grades achieved in 2006 certainly do correspond to a lower level of general academic ability than the same grades would have done in previous years. Whether or not they are better taught makes no difference to this interpretation; the same grade corresponds to a lower level of general ability."
(Thanks to Tim Worstall for the links.)

My impression is that, while for years liberals and the left have hotly denied that exams have been getting easier, it will soon be widely accepted that they are. (It is remarkably how quickly the unthinkable can become the new conventional wisdom.) Certainly, the Guardian piece, published the other day, which tried to uphold the no-fall-in-standards thesis was so flippant that you sensed the author had really given up the ghost.

So does this mean that today's A level students have it easier than my generation did?

Not a bit of it. My rather guilty impression is that they work a good deal harder at school than my friends and I had to at that age.

It sounds like a paradox, but it isn't.

What will the more sought-after universities do if more and more young people start getting two or three good A levels? Will they reason that with so many talented candidates around it does not much matter whom they chose?

Of course they won't. Instead they will start to ask for four good A levels. Or they will start looking for more evidence of achievements outside school, turning students' leisure time into a competitive field too.

So there you have it. A levels are getting easier and students are having to work harder to distinguish themselves as a result.

And that, incidentally, means a greater volume of work rather than work at a higher, more stimulating level. Which also helps explain my generation's prejudice that, while we did not work so hard, we were more intellectually advanced. For we had more time to read outside the curriculum and follow our own interests.

Traditionally, the Lib Dems have been at the forefront of those denying that exams have been getting easier. So I was cheered by the media release from Stephen Williams today calling for an independent review of standards.

Although the tone is still all about attacking the "carpers", it may a sign that the party is beginning to think for itself on education rather than taking its lead from the teachers' unions, as it has tended to do in recent years.

If the outcome of that review were to be harder and fewer exams for A level students, I would be very pleased. If exams are getting easier, it is the young people taking them who are being shortchanged.


Guy said...

Very good comment.

There is no doubt A levels are getting easier, especially in science subjects. In the 1990s, one physics A level paper contained a short answer question which had appeared in an O level some years before. This a disservice to all participating in the education system.

You correctly point out the real damage this has done to current students. By definition, we are already talking about relatively academic students (otherwise they wouldn't be studying A level). The very best are short-changed as their efforts and ability are not distinguished. Those who have done better than expected, more to the point, are also short-changed - as the prevailing view is A levels are not the test they were. That is without addressing the failure of the A level system to reflect modern day needs.

The other point you make about pressure on current students is spot on. With more and more students getting A grades and more and more going to university (on their own good things), there is much greater pressure on A level students at exam time. It is now much harder for institutions to discriminate between candidates and too many young people are now being given offers of AAA and more for places to read popular subjects at universities which remain outside the top five. A marginal failure at A level may now mean the difference between going to an appropriate university and ending up somewhere through the lottery of Clearing.

Whether this should all take place at 18 is another question altogether.

We need an exam system which encourages success rather than penalises failure. Any review of standards should be framed with this in mind.

Andre said...

I live in a country were A-levels are hard - and in order to get the A-level certificate there is some coursework to do.

By making the a-levels harder the chances are a lot of potential would be wasted; at age 17/18 it takes little to be discouraged - and I am speaking from personal experience here. Unfortunately friends of mine who I believe had the capability of getting a brilliant career and a brilliant education stopped studying after a disappointing performance.