Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Evidence that A levels have got easier

I was interested in an article in the Guardian today in which Joanna Moorhead compares her experiences as a student at the University of York's Goodricke College 30 years ago with those of her daughter, who has just begun studying there. I was interested not least because I was at Goodricke 30 years ago too. (It has magically changed location since then, by the way.)

But what really struck me was a passage towards the end where Moorhead describes meeting her former supervisor Adrian Leftwich, who still lectures at York:
one of Leftwich's colleagues, electronics lecturer Ken Todd, monitored the maths performance of first-year electronics students between 1989 and 2004, and found that an A-grade achiever in 2004 would have been down towards the bottom of the class 15 years earlier.
No wonder that York, like many other UK universities, now runs remedial classes in basic skills for students who know their stuff on their specialist subject, but don't make the basic grade for numeracy and literacy.
"One thing you notice about essays these days is that many students simply haven't got the fundamental writing skills that almost all had in your day," says Leftwich.
Every year when record A level results are announced, Liberal Democrat bloggers ridicule anyone who suggests this may be because examinations have got easier rather. But in the face of such evidence that looks the most convincing explanation. Particularly as York remains one of the most sought after universities.


Lavengro said...

It's blatantly obvious that grades have been inflated. Subjects like maths, engineering and languages (my subject) provide clear objective standards of achievement.

But apart from that there is the fact that I got into Cambridge in 1969 with 3 B's and an F at A-level.

Ken said...

I don't doubt that there is some evidence of grade inflation in exams. But I do think there are other factors here that are worth considering.

1) Until recently, exam performance was considered to be a snapshot of how you did on a day. Now, exam results are much more reflective of your maximum possible achievement. Coursework, modular exams, and resits all combine to give people better chances of getting higher marks. There are arguments either way - one exam only tests deeper learning; multiple means of assessment assess a wider array of skills and prevent people being punished for having an off-day. I'm guessing the tests that are cited by the York professor are done very much as a one-off thing rather than assessed over a period of time.

2) Studies suggest that people do best on a style of question they are most familiar with. So, changes in the style of exam mean that while current students don't do as well on old tests as they do on more recent ones, so their parents perform better on old exams than new ones.

So, while I don't disagree that there are problems with grade inflation, we also have to consider the fact that what we're expected to get out of secondary education (as with higher education) is very different from 30 years ago, too.