Two incompatible facts

Every year on this day, two contradictory claims are made about the meaning of the ever-rising A-level grades and pass-rate.

On one side, we're told that A levels are getting easier; that "grade inflation" has rendered the A-grade all but meaningless as a determinant of true ability; and that despite the record results educational standards are actually in decline.

The alternative view is that, on the contrary, today's A-level students work harder than ever; that the exam standards are at least as high as they ever were, if not higher; and that the improvement is mainly due to better teaching and more motivated students.

Surely these two incompatible explanations can't both be true? They can, and they are.

For a start, it's most unlikely that 18 year olds today are significantly more intelligent than 18 year olds were twenty years ago, at a time when straight As were something to boast about, and certainly enough to get you an automatic place at Cambridge (Oxford would let you in with Es). In those days, there were no bite-size modules or a two-stage exam, with AS levels bridging the gap between GCSE and the significantly more advanced A-level; instead, you were presented, at the end of two years, with a tough, all-written, time-limited paper, set and marked the old-fashioned way. Many failed, or did worse than expected, and were thus forced to put in a humiliating reappearance in September for re-takes. Crammers did big business.

Much of this is anecdotal, but there's more objective evidence, too, that things are not all they seem. Universities have been forced to extend courses in maths and sciences, with a year's extra coaching required to bring students up to the level that was once expected of them when they arrived. Lecturers in the humanities complain that students arrive at university unable to write a well-constructed or linguistically fluent essay. Employers find that their new recruits, even after three or four years of university, still have problems with basic literacy, numeracy and communication skills. Opinion polls suggest widespread ignorance of key events in British history or scientific concepts. All these factors suggest that the great increase in the number of graduates has not necessarily produced a population that can claim to be more educated in the broader sense.

And yet the government can put up a good case of its own. Direct comparisons between A-level papers and marking schemes old and new do not reveal any significant diminution in difficulty, or in the required standards. Experienced markers claim to mark in much the same way that they always have. And the rise in the passmark has accompanied the raised expectations of both students and schools.

There is more testing - more exams - than ever before. There is more coursework, too; and there is no longer an exam-free lower sixth which provided opportunities for broader and deeper learning about the subject but, equally, opportunities for lazing about and bunking off. The schools, meanwhile, have become obsessed with league-tables, and teachers with producing results. Where previously an A-level course consisted of two years studying a subject with an exam at the end, it's now a two year-long exam process in which whatever it is you happen to be studying is less important than achieving the right marks. So of course standards have risen. Just so long as you don't imagine that getting an A-grade is the same as knowing the first thing about the subject.

Here's Francis Gilbert, for example:

When I think back to when I first started teaching A-level 15 years ago, I realise that my lessons were a great deal more creative and exploratory and, as a result, fostered more intelligent, original and crafted responses.

For example, I can remember teaching Jane Austen's Emma to a class of sixth-formers at that time. Because the rubric of the A-level was much less prescriptive, I was able to ask students to write stories and film scripts in response to the text, we were able to read other works by Austen, and there was room for open-ended discussion about her techniques and themes. The emphasis was upon "exploration" rather than teaching to the exam.

I remember it well. None of the books I studied in the first year of A-level French were examined on. We read them to gain experience of a broad range of French literature. Set-texts came later.

More recently, however (continues Gilbert),

my lessons consisted solely of exam practice, training pupils to answer the question. Of course, my results were far better, with half the class gaining A grades. I taught the students to make the points that would meet the "assessment objectives", rather than trying to shape an original argument for themselves. This objective-driven approach now characterises all A-level teaching because it is how all the exams are graded. But I could clearly see that it was closing my students' minds, exhorting them to produce "gobbets" of information and failing to persuade them to shape individual arguments.

Put at its crudest, A-levels are not getting easier. In fact, they're getting more difficult, in terms of the time and effort that is required to pass them. Students are forced onto an increasingly unforgiving treadmill, made to work harder, for longer, with less time off to explore the subject or to enjoy a social life. If they do what is required of them, however, then their chance of leaving school with a clutch of A-grades is much greater than it ever used to be. Which means, in turn, that for today's students perfect results are no longer enough to get into the course of their choice at a top university. They must demonstrate their worthiness in other ways, perhaps by taking four, five or even six A-levels and gaining As in all of them, or doing extra exams set by the top colleges for the purpose of making the fine distinctions that A-levels used to make. And so the final few years of school become more and more nightmarish, more and more of an exam sausage-machine, less and less about developing an adult personality.

A-level students, in short, work much harder than they used to, but they learn less.

Now a new A* grade is being introduced, which will enable the top candidates to stand out a bit. The "best students" will also have the "opportunity" to submit a 5,000 word dissertation, demonstrating the sort of knowledge-in-depth that used to be a prerequisite of sitting A-levels in the first place, but now imposed on top of the increasingly brain-numbing exams, piling the pressure on even more. Doubtless it will quickly become apparent what is required of a successful dissertation, and it will turn out to be fact-mining rather than true originality. More coursework. And of course, the dissertation will effectively be required of any candidate hoping to get into a top university, even as a lively online marketplace develops in the dissertations themselves.

Grade inflation is real. Research conducted by Durham university last month reveals an inflation of around two grades over the past twenty years: all other things being equal, the student who would once have been amazed to achieve three Bs (and would have been delighted with one) is now likely to get straight As. That student isn't more intelligent, but he or she will almost certainly have put more effort in. They will have taken far more exams, and spent longer revising and learning exam technique. It would be surprising, given all this, if the pass-rate, and the numbers of top grades, had not improved.

Sadly, the end result of all this cramming and target-shooting is not a better-educated student but, much of the time, a more ignorant and less mature one. One who will probably have less in-depth knowledge about the subject, and is likely to show less intellectual originality or enthusiasm. Worst of all, more rigorously tested subjects such as physics, which are less prone to grade inflation - though not, of course, immune from it - tend to lose out in a sort of Darwinian competition among schools and students looking for the best headline grade figures. In their place come "soft subjects", virtually useless for any purpose except embellishing an exam certificate, but that of course is what matters.

It's hard to see who benefits from this state of affairs. Not the students, whose intellectual development is crippled by the tyranny of constant testing and test-preparation, and whose teenage years are blighted by stress. Not the teachers, who have become initiative-starved monkey-trainers, whose love of their subject is often snuffed out, and who find it difficult either to impart their expertise and enthusiasm or to expand their own knowledge. Not the schools, who sacrifice extra-curricular activities and social development on the altar of league tables.

Not the university admissions tutors, who, faced with hundreds of practically identical straight-A candidates are reduced to pulling names out of a hat, and who then find themselves confronted by students who have bucketloads of grades but can't tie their own shoelaces, intellectually speaking. Not the employers, faced with long lines of interview candidates, impressive on paper, whose interpersonal skills often extend little further than "Yeah, but no, but yeah, but no, but..." Not the government ministers brought out every year to defend the exam system from accusations of becoming too easy, and who, in response, have to come up with new systems of assessment, new super-grades, new exams.

And not society as a whole, which becomes every year just a little bit coarser, more intellectually stagnant and stressed-out.

I can't see any way out of this mess, short of abolishing A-levels entirely. In many ways it would be fairer to allocate a fixed percentage of A-grades (and a fixed percentage of failures, the numbers awarded based on university entrance requirements. That would at least put an end to grade inflation. But it would be unlikely to be politically acceptable and would do little of itself to end the culture of teaching to the test. The A-E grade system is now crude and debased. Introducing an A* is a cheap fix; a more sensible reform would be to bring in a more subtle gradation of 1-10 based purely, and transparently, on percentages: thus a grade one would be in the top ten percent, a grade 2 in the next decentile, and so on down.

But the reform I would most like to see is a much broader syllabus, combined with a drastic reduction in the number of exams. Teaching to the test is only possible if the remit of the test is narrowly defined. The larger the pool of potential questions - the greater the mystery of what the exam will contain - the more that needs to be learned and absorbed. Perhaps, to aid revision, the exam boards might offer clues six months beforehand as to the areas that will be tested: that would give two terms for gap-plugging and focussed revision - but without the broad grounding developed over the previous year and a half it would be insufficient. That way, attainment in the exams could continue to improve, but without the damage this currently inflicts on education.

None of this, however, will restore the halcyon days of twenty years ago, when the lower-sixth was a blissful hiatus and, when you did scrape together some Bs and a well-known and respected institution was delighted to offer you a place, you didn't even have to pay tuition fees. It was a different world.


Anonymous said…
Why can't we go back to exams that invite creative, wide-ranging answers? Isn't that what the youngsters will have to come up with to pass university degrees? (Or proper ones, anyway.)

It must be a hell of a shock for the treadmill generation to be told 'read the book, think about it, then devise and write a dissertation'. No wonder so many drop out.
Jackart said…
What a superb post.
Anonymous said…
Woah, there, just heard the Today report on this - the little buggers can resit modules as often as they like! I'm amazed any of them can fail. Mystery solved. Exams are easier.
Anonymous said…
Great Post. I can identify with almost everything you said.

My son just got his AS level results yesterday - he worked hard, is much much more committed and brighter than I was and got straight As.

He is predicted straight A grades at A2. He "hopes" to go to Cambridge (subject to the discrimination he will suffer for being from an independent school).

But... I watched him work and sweat and practice exam papers over and over in his lower sixth - the year I played Rugby, discovered real ale and the finer points of courting the opposite sex!

The halcyon days are indeed over.

Anonymous said…
Why would it have been easier 18 years ago to get into Oxford than Cambridge? I'm American, and far more people here are familiar with Oxford, possibly due to confusion resulting from Harvard/MIT being located in/near Cambridge, Mass.

Also, I have read about the "clearing process" for people who don't meet their offers and have to come up with a Plan B, but if you can retake modules, etc., and so many kids take "gap years" anyway, why wouldn't a bright student who got 2 As and a B, when he needed 3 As just re-do some modules and reapply? Is there prejudice against those who do this?
Heresiarch said…
It wasn't necessarily easier to get into Oxford 18 years ago, but it was different. Originally, Oxbridge candidates had to stay on after A-levels to take an extra entrance exam in the autumn. This was abolished the mid 80s; instead, Cambridge offered conditional places on the strength of A level results, and typically required 3 As. Oxford continued (for about a decade) with its own entrance exam, moving it to the previous autumn. If you passed that they would then make an unconditional offer; they'd let you in whatever results you got in your A-levels.
Joe Otten said…
On the strength of A level results? No. On the strength of teachers' predictions of A level results.

Bitter? Me? Probably.

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