Thursday, August 20, 2009

Easier A levels still make it harder for students

Two years ago I wrote:
So there you have it. A levels are getting easier and students are having to work harder to distinguish themselves as a result.

I am happy to stand by that view today.

Those Lib Dems who have written in defence of the position that A levels are as challenging as they ever were (Mark Pack and Chris Ward) have not been at their most impressive in doing so. Last year I posted some evidence against that position.

Incidentally, when did A level results become such a barometer of our national well-being?

In my day (as I increasingly find myself saying) you were bright or you were not, you worked hard or you didn't, and you more or less got what you deserved. It was essentially an individual matter.

Wasn't that a saner way of treating exam results?

10 comments:

Mark Pack said...

I've got an open mind on the question Jonathan, but what I was poking fun at in my post was a very common but poorly thought out train of thought. You're right that there are much more thoughtful trains of thought as well.

Anonymous said...

Having taught my 21st year of A level(with the same Board & syllabus with some revisions in content & assessment)I can say that the exam papers have not got easier. A levels have 2 major differences from "my day" and probably yours. 1. they are now modular not linear with exams throughout the course, you can view them as 2 one year courses not 1 two year course. 2. In the 1990s the rationing of grades stopped, no longer did a set % fail no matter how well you did, now a standard is set if you clear the bar you get the grade.
This is why the pass rate is much higher even before we get onto the quality of teaching!!
Finally my daughter achieved 3 A's today, she worked extremely hard for 2 years and deserves her success rather than result time being one of knocking and questioning students success. If we want a debate about standards lets do it in November but then the media wont be interested, will they?

Matthew Huntbach said...


Finally my daughter achieved 3 A's today, she worked extremely hard for 2 years and deserves her success rather than result time being one of knocking and questioning students success.


And, there we go - never mind the quality feel the width.

If the sole reason for getting three grade As is "I worked very hard, so I must deserve it", the point is proved.

The correct grade for someone who just worked very hard is C. A grade A should involve working very hard and also extra demonstration of flair and ability beyond the normal.

Your daughter may or may not also have had that flair and ability. I don't know - and the problem is the A-level system is now set so that no-one else would know either from her A-level grades.

Anonymous said...

ah the judgemental attitude of some, I'd worry if a student got A's and didnt work hard!! To think a student can get an A without flair and ability, makes me wonder why someone could be so cynical. I helped handing out results yesterday, not one student did I think how did you get that? or you wouldnt have got that 10 years ago!what would be the point of giving someone a grade they did not deserve? universities now take account of students modular marks, any resits and the personal statement much more. As of next year there will be the A* grade too. A simple solution might just be limit the number of resits.
I am amazed that people want it both ways, they want better teaching & learning in schools and then knock the success that delivers.

Jonathan said...

Speaking for myself, I am not convinced that there has been the great improvement in teaching and learning that you claim.

All that I have read tells me that there has been a narrowing of the curriculum and a reliance upon stereotyped assessment methods.

Anonymous said...

I don't think i've suggested one reason that simply explains the increase in grades and pass rate but several. Put the lot together and you build a picture which is more accurate than simple grade inflation. I would be the last to suggest all is rosy but misinformation and "grumpy old man" syndrome of "its not as good as my day" just need challenging in my book!

Matthew Huntbach said...


ah the judgemental attitude of some, I'd worry if a student got A's and didnt work hard!!


It could be someone who was very bright, and so found them easy.


To think a student can get an A without flair and ability, makes me wonder why someone could be so cynical.


My point is that a grade A should indicate something out of the ordinary, it isn't doing that if 25% or more are getting it. If the idea now is that a grade A is merely reward for hard work, then it isn't doing what it ought to be doing. That's not to knock students - a grade C should be a good and respectable result. Why are you suggesting a student who has just worked hard but shown nothing really exceptional which would put him or her in the top 10%or so for that subject should be insulted by a grade C?


universities now take account of students modular marks, any resits and the personal statement much more.


Yes, if the student has gained a particular grade after numerous resits, it isn't counted as good a test of ability than the same grade gained first time. Modular marks - problem is when you're faced with a big batch of students you really don't have time to go into that detail. Personal statements - yes, they can be a good guide to the right attitude, I always read them all in my time as a university admissions tutor, and they were often crucial to the accept/reject decision. The idea that admissions tutors just want a particular number of UCAS points and don't care how they're gained is false, the UCAS points are only a very rough guide, UCAS points gained in a subject that is not much use cannot be equated to UCAS points gained in something more relevant, and UCAS's attempt to equate vocational qualifications with academic qualifications by a uniform system of points really doesn't work, it's far too arbitrary.


I am amazed that people want it both ways, they want better teaching & learning in schools and then knock the success that delivers.


You are assuming that higher exam passes means better teaching. I disagree, teaching which is narrowly focused on passing exams is poorer teaching, not better teaching.

Phil said...

The problem about teaching to the test is that students become very unstuck when faced with a question that is composed in an unconventional way. Recall the curfuffle over the expression "despotic tyranny" being used to describe Nazi Germany?

A teacher said...

AS a teacher I can assure anyone wanting to know that A levels and GCSEs are much easier than 20 years ago. If you are of a different mind, simply obtain a science exam of today and compare with 20 years ago. I know the syllabus has changed (largely the difficult equation-y stuff has gone!) but you'll soon get the point.

GCSEs have changed beyond all recognition. I teach children who obtain better grades than I did without being able to simple mathematics that I was competent with at age 10 or lower.

The difference isn't so much with the top half of th epopulation, it manifests itself in children who would have achieved a D or E 20 years ago now obtaining Bs and Cs.

Mind you, a lot of teachers under 30 have a very idiosyncratic approach to numeracy and literacy too. If you get me...

Chris Ward said...

A tad generalistic, I didn't say that A-Levels were as challenging as they ever have been, I simply rejected the populist views of many people who come to that conclusion without the most basic shreds of evidence.