16 August 2007

On The A-level Results

This is my take on the A-level results, cross-posted on The ThunderDragon.

The A-level results are again the Best Year Ever (Until Next Year), with more than 25% of the grades given being As. There is no doubt that those who got As worked hard for them, but when the number of top grades is at 25.3%, there is no doubt that something is wrong somewhere. When this is broken down into subject, there is a surprising development - 43.7% of maths A-levels given an A grade, compared with 14% of those in media studies. So media studies isn't the nice easy Mickey Mouse course - instead, maths is, it would appear. However, that 96.9% got a passing grade isn't a bad thing at all. The only issue I have is with the number of top grades.

To say that the exams were easier is a bit of a cop out. I doubt that the level of the questions in the exams have changed all that much, but what is far more likely to have changed is the marking schemes. Unlike the "back in my day" brigade [who used to have have to walk five miles to school each day, rain or shine, and it was up-hill both ways] who claim that A-levels are easier because they had "proper exams" rather than modules and coursework. But all those co-called "proper exams" ever did was mean that you crammed to pass them and then soon forgot everything again. Modules and coursework are more work but stretched out over a longer period of time, so you actually have to learn the subject, not just cram for the exam - the exam on which the last two years of your life, and your future, hung. The different system, in itself, does not and cannot account for the huge grade increases.

A-level grades have been increasing for the last 25 years. This does not mean that the youth of today are more intelligent than yesteryears, but neither does it rule that out. Even so, to claim that increased intelligence of youths is the prime or only reason for this is patently absurd. Certainly part of the increases can be put down to an improvement in teaching methods, and part of it could be explained away by an estimated increase in intelligence - but that more than a quarter of all grades is an A can mean nothing other than something is wrong with the system.

The students that have taken the exams have tried their best, like generations have before them, and they should be commended for it. It is the government and the examination boards who have let them down by quite obviously fiddling with the figures somewhere along the line. Either they mark them easier or they have lowered the grade thresholds. None of this can be blamed on the students who have simply done their best to get their qualifications.

What can or should be done about it? First of all, instead of giving universities just the grades, they should be given the full score sheet - this will allow them to actively select the best. The idea of adding an A* grade to the A-levels is necessary - to shift the grades in any other way would do nothing more than hurt the students who are yet to come.

The problem with the issue over A-levels is that people see high levels of As and think "oh, they must be easy if so many are getting As!" - but they're wrong. They're not easy. I would doubt that they are any easier than they ever were. The results may appear high to us, but that is not because the exams themselves are necessarily easier, but because the government has moved the goal posts.

The ThunderDragon

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

"you crammed to pass them and then soon forgot everything again"

Have you got maths A level?

I don't think you could cram maths and get a grade 'A'.

Anonymous said...

Modules and coursework are more work but stretched out over a longer period of time, so you actually have to learn the subject, not just cram for the exam

Nonsense. By your logic, you can cram for the modules even easier than a final exam. And as for the coursework, the teachers are motivated to get the maximum number passing at the highest grade. I think self interest might actually compete with actually learning the subject.

I kept my O and A level Maths papers (or rather my mother did). There are significant dfferences between them and the exams my son brings home. First, I can do the old and the new, my son cannot do the old. In particular, there is no calculus in the new O-level.

JohnM said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JohnM said...

I would have thought the debate over whether standards in a subject like maths had dropped, would be resolved by testing a proportion of students over an extended period using the same exam and comparing it to the actual results.

Durham University has done this (see here for example).

Whether you regard this as convincing proof, I leave to you. As a person who employs people who require maths skills, I find that whereas 20 years ago I would have accepted the exam certificate as proof of ability, I now test independently to verify the ability. I know many others who do exactly the same.

I'm sure this will be rejected as anecdotal evidence but I'd be keen to understand on what basis you assume the results to reflect a stable or improving standard.

Paul H. said...

...Have to endorse JohnM's comment: I took double maths at A-Level, just under twenty years ago. The papers I sat were easier than the past papers I'd been using for revision, and there hasn't been any genuine attempt at ratcheting up the difficulty level again. I now tutor A-Level maths: were the brightest (as in six A-grade A-Levels bright) of my students to be confronted with one of the diabolical combinatorics problems of a few decades ago, they'd bomb out. The modern equivalents are appreciably easier.

And students taking modular courses tend to forget material just as quickly as their non-modular predecessors --- perhaps even more quickly, given that they don't have to hang on to so much for so long.

Sorry, but the fogeys *did* have it somewhat tougher than we did.

Paul H. said...

The idea of adding an A* grade to the A-levels is necessary - to shift the grades in any other way would do nothing more than hurt the students who are yet to come.

Gah! The cringe-making Hungarian banknote approach.

Please, let's not.