August 19, 2010

A–Level Results Day

ORIGINALLY POSTED: 18th August 2005

In about 8 hours time, there’ll be a horde of 17 and 18 year olds prancing around in pubs all over the country, getting completely leathered and acting like prats for no apparant reason, and that reason is that today is A-Level results day. What it also means is it’s the annual Mat-gets-angry-at-the-idiotic-paper day.

I’m sure we’ll see a greater pass rate coming out of A-Levels, or at least something similar coming out than the 96% that we got last year. Then respectable newspapers like The Daily Mail and The Daily Express will go on a big mother of whinging campaign in order to point out the fact that A-Levels have been dumbed down and kids these days are stupid and whatnot.

Seriously, I can’t think of anything that gets me so angry as this, and I get angry at a lot of things. But I specifically have to try and avoid the statistics and any newspaper on this day, particularly the aforementioned Tory-biased trash (I specifically mention the Tory newspapers simply because they’re the most harsh on the results as they see it as an evil Labour construct). Luckily, since they’ve decided not to release the statistics first it means that the students can actually get their results before being told they’re worthless.

You go up to any A-Level student and tell them that their exams are easier than the previous years, and see what kind of response you get. When you get a giant stick in the eye, you’ll bloody deserve it.

Now, of course I have to have some kind of argument to back all this up, so:

There’s no definitive evidence the exams are easier

The evidence that exams are easier than previously is based entirely on the fact that more people pass than the previous year, and also the fact that there are uptight people who probably failed their A-Levels who feel like their qualifications are devalued just because someone else dares to pass them several years later.

How can you base exams being easier on that? It’s impossible to guage this – you’d have to give a student the exact same knowledge, and give them exams over a 10 year period with exactly the same syllabus, and then scale it up to around 1000 students at least and look at the marks for it. It’s just impossible to make such a sweeping statement.

Competition is greater

More people are going to University, so more people are placing a high valuation on their A-Level marks as they are necessary to get into University. If you weren’t going to a University that required ABB in your A-Levels, would you try as hard as if you required BCC? Quite simply, with competition being greater, particularly for the most popular Universities, there is more incentive for people to try harder, and this would probably be reflected in the results for A-Levels.

Stability breeds higher passrates

The syllabi for the major A-Level subjects has remained the same for many years now with only a few very slight differences, particularly since modular AS/A2 style A Levels became the norm. This has meant that teachers have become better at teaching them – simple as that – they know the material and they know the kind of things that are going to come up in the exam. They’re able to refine their techniques, which increases the competence of students.

The exam system is flawed

It’s been discussed many times, and it doesn’t just apply to A-Levels but to all non-Vocational qualifications (and to Vocational qualifications to a lesser extent) because there is an inordinate amount of emphasis based on core knowledge of the subject (memory based questions) and much less emphasis on knowledge of the application of the subject. Personally I can take experience on this: an exam such as Artificial Intelligence or Computer Graphics this year is based on a lot of memory, memory of techniques and whatnot. I got some pretty poor marks on these exams compared to my coursework marks. In the first year, my Programming for Computer Scientists module (although too long) asked questions that asked you to write programs to solve a problem – something that simply can’t be remembered – and I got 95% on that module, meaning I got something like 102% in the exam when you take into account my coursework mark.

As this continues, teachers become more demoralised with teaching practical knowledge of the subject and teach their students to pass their exams – giving the fact by fact point by point knowledge required to get a good grade in an exam these days. The problem is that teachers (or lecturers, for that matter) who teach their subject matter “properly” in a practical sense and then set an exam in the same vein are actually not contributing to the system, if for no other reason than their students will get poor marks.

The State/Private School System Skews Results

Private school students are more competent because they have better teachers, more pressure to succeed and generally are given more opportunity to succeed than a student at a state school. Should this mean that private school students are marked on the same scale as state school students? At the end of the day, you’re being marked on overall knowledge of the subject matter (which is going to be higher for a private school student) rather than actual skill, talent or potential, which simply isn’t graded in the current system.

Of course, when it comes down to it, your education is only as good as your last qualification. If you leave school at 16, your GCSEs/GNVQs are going to be the thing that employers take into account. At 18, yourGCSEs are almost entirely pointless – your employer is only going to take into account your A Level grades. Once you have a degree, your A Level degrees are a moot point, they may show some grounding in a subject you didn’t take to degree level, but the thing that they’re going to look at most is your degree classification and where it is from.

Good luck to Kendal, my sister, who is getting her A-Level results today.

Edit: This blog entry is 5 years old. Today, my brother got his results today, and had to go through the traumatic event of UCAS/his Uni declining his firm offer despite him achieving the necessary points.


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