August 19, 2005

The late, great A–Level debate

There has been a number of interesting A-Levels-inspired posts during today. At the risk of unpopularity (with those Warwick Bloggers who have younger siblings going through the mill at the moment – well done to those I've read about), here are my thoughts on the issue. In which will be discussed:

  • "A-Levels are getting easier"
  • The pass rate – a 41% improvement?
  • Personal experience – the equal difficulty of previous years' exam papers
  • Gradual change: moderation
  • Step changes: AS/A2, modules and syllabus change
  • Differentiation

I've held these ideas since before I took my own A-Levels. The exams were by no means easy, but I was fully aware at the time that it was easier for me to achieve my A grades in 2000 than it would have been if I'd taken the same exams 10 years earlier. In the same way, today's A-Levels are still bloody difficult – the pass rate is only fractionally higher now than 5 years ago – but then it's something towards which young people spend two of the most active years of their lives working; what do they expect?

Let's start with the media's general premise "A-Levels are getting easier". This is a hopelessly simplistic statement and – wrongly – implies that A-Levels were ever "easy", and that they are now even more so. The statement assumes that A-Levels could ever be a constant and perfect test of ability; demonstrably they are not and cannot. This would only be disputed by a politician anxious to avoid accusations of demeaning children's achievements ("won't somebody please think of the children?") – in much the same way as any discussion criticising the NHS "demeans nurses".

We can throw a couple of further cliched ideas straight out of the window: "exam success is just as difficult as it's always been" and "young people are simply getting cleverer". The A-Level pass rate in 1982 – the first year for which the marking system was in today's format – was 68.2%, compared to 81% in 1993 and 96.2% this year. By contrast, the global, highly respected and well-established International Baccalaureate system (IB) has seen its pass rate remain at 81–84% since 1993. In the 1982 set of A-Levels, 8.9% of all subject examinations ended in an A grade; it is 22.8% in 2005.

In A-Levels, then, there's been a 41% increase in passes and a 156% increase in attainment of the highest grade over a 23-year period. Now, the population has not got 40% more intelligent – or industrious – in the last 20 years. It's that simple – such a big change in human ability is inconceivable. Don't forget, too, that the number of people taking A-Levels was significantly lower in 1982: it was much more valid/acceptable to leave school at 16 if one was considered not to be "cut out" for sixth form education. Thus, those who stayed on were the high academic achievers. With an expansion in the proportion of young people taking A-Levels (all on the march to Tony's "50% in HE" figure), the average raw intelligence and ability of candidates can only have gone down.

The cumulative improvement over 23 years has come in a series of small but positive steps every year. The smoothness of the increase implies a systematic variable: there is some part of the process that is changing at a constant rate. When I took my Maths A-Level, I think we had access to about 4–5 years of past papers on a syllabus very similar to our year's; likewise for Physics. The past papers we used for practice were not more difficult than our mock paper, or even than the real thing… but the pass rate, and the proportion of A grades, still rose. This points us in the right direction: one aspect of the rising pass rate has a lot to do with moderation. When an organisation is put in charge of overseeing the marking of exams, and at the same time given the responsibility of keeping track of the "continual improvement" of our education system… there's such a huge conflict of interest it's not true!

There are, of course, step changes as well. For example, the introduction of the AS/A2 system brought problems, with some students being caught up in the swamping of Warwick Uni three years ago (when too many students met or exceeded their predicted grades) and thousands of others mysteriously being failed or receiving very low grades in certain modules, to keep the published rates of grade inflation modest.

The other main example of step change, syllabus alteration, is often less pronounced. However, it is very common to hear or read of university lecturers (even at Warwick) complaining that first year – and sometimes second or third year – modules consist of imparting knowledge they themselves had picked up at A-Level. Similar anecdotal evidence has professors decrying the standard of English that undergraduates possess – even English students – and I'd have to agree. This indicates that students may come to university having done better than their predecessors in their exams, but this does not guarantee they will be any more able to cope with the subject itself (taken to include basics like expressing an argument in clear terms).

So how are standards still appearing to rise? A lot of this is down to changes in teaching priorities. Especially in the climate of league tables, added-value measurement and the like, the exam result is all-important. Teachers spend far less time discussing, pursuing and expanding; rather, they have two four-month sprints each year (including holiday time) to impart as much knowledge as possible before the next cycle of modular exams comes around. This knowledge is often coaching for exams, in the form of practice questions and model answers, rather than promotion of good technique and independent thought.

Retaking modules, of course, has been credited with improving results more than any other recent innovation. I don't believe the exam questions are easier but, with exams more frequent and more narrowly focussed, students are forced to do more practice on individual areas of the course. More coaching, essentially, and less time for learning and exploring a subject. There's also the related serious issue of the detriment to extra-curricular activities: students today are indeed under more pressure, academically and in terms of their time. Something has to give and so they have less time for "personal development"-type activities that were very common at my school.

So I'm not saying exams are easier, or harder. With changes in emphasis, exam structure and teaching practice, though, it's undeniable that more and more young people are reaching the top grade, some without doing as much work as they might if they were on a borderline. That was certainly true of me. With the basic ability of human beings remaining roughly unchanged over a 20-year period, it's safe to conclude that the internal and external methods of exam preparation are the things that have changed: young people are, shall we say, more prepared for their exams than any before them.

Which brings us to the nub of the problem: differentiation. Not calculus (fast disappearing from Maths AS-Level!) but a ranking, of sorts. An article I saw recently claimed there were about 10,000 university rejections of students predicted 3 or more A grades. Universities just can't tell who really has the greatest ability – even leaving aside the unreliability of summative examination in and of itself. In my view, this is the true utility of A-Levels; keeping standards constant-but-rising-a-bit each year does not, as must have been intended, promote comparison between young people of different ages. If you will, the increase is just a politician's conjuring trick: there may well be a steady increase in teaching standards but, in applying this increase artificially through moderation, you'd never know the difference if teaching standards were static or even falling. Bring back normative marking and a grade will actually mean something truly positive.

Well done, to everyone who got their results today, on the culmination of 13 years' testing; for those fortunate enough to be preparing for university, best of luck with the next three.


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  1. nice: much better put than my entry.

    the point about the past papers is very true. i certainly never noticed a difference in standard (the only difference being changes in syllabus).

    i also agree that it's more of an institutional thing than a government thing, i realised it as i was writing my entry. if i was to amend it i'd say that the institution is failing and the only reason nothing is done about it is because the government benefits from it.

    19 Aug 2005, 09:19

  2. My Mum says that, when she did her A–Levels, people were saying they were easier than before.
    That was 30 years ago.
    Goverments and newspapers change, but they still speak bollocks.

    19 Aug 2005, 12:05

  3. Cathy

    I don't really have time to comment on all of this post; I'll just say that it's very well–written and presented, I agree with almost everything, and hopefully it should persuade some of the students jumping up and down in indignation at the (rightful) suggestion that it's far easier to achieve top grades now than in the past.

    Anyway.

    On the subject of past exam papers for practice, I think you're missing the point a little. I agree that questions from exams from even as much as five years ago won't be noticeably harder than the real thing (however, go back ten years or more and questions on the same topic will almost certainly be undeniably harder). The real point is that the syllabus is shrinking almost every year, not only by excluding whole topics but by restricting existing topics and covering them in ever less depth. So the syllabus of today is, generally speaking, a subset of that of previous years', and questions you are given from past papers will only be those that are covered by your syllabus. I certainly remember being given whole past papers and told to cross out one or two questions (mainly in Physics, I think) because those topics were no longer on the syllabus.

    Personally, I think the most shocking thing is the decline of standards of English in the past few decades, but that's another story.

    19 Aug 2005, 14:18

  4. What's annoying is that after you've worked for 2 years to get the grades to come to University, everyone says that your qualifications don't really mean much and that it was a poor system…gah!
    I wish the government would make up its mind and leave our grades at peace!

    21 Aug 2005, 21:15

  5. Thanks Anthony & thanks Cathy. You're right about the shrinking syllabus found in most modules, of course – Justin talked about the same thing.

    Ailsa: I think a lot of people of our parents' generation feel (rightly) quite insulted that some politicians – although few other people – hold A–Levels to be an absolute and comparable measure of knowledge and ability. This seriously devalues the achievement of people who took the exams years ago (especially up to 23 years ago, when grading was changed to the current system). Are we really to believe that a person who achieved 3 A grades in 1983 (a tiny minority of candidates when only 8.9% of papers were awarded that grade) is only as clever and able as any of the several thousand who managed the same this year?

    Victoria: students can only do the best they can under the system open to them. It affects everyone in the same year group in exactly the same way. I don't think any student at Warwick has anything to worry about!

    22 Aug 2005, 13:41

  6. One of the key problems with this debate is the repeated use of the argument that to criticise the current system is unfair to those who sat the exams. Plainly, there is a problem with the system and it needs to be addressed, but to suggest that we are insulting the current crop of A–Level students by doing so is preposterous – it's the system that is being attacked, not those who have had no choice but to go through it. By using this argument, the individual is basically blocking any chance of real debate or positive change to be made.

    I would say, having discussed this at great length with many teachers in the past, that the problem Simon highlighted about A–Levels lacking the knowledge university courses require is down to the removal of content from the GCSE. My particular experience here is with maths and the sciences; the step up from GCSE to A–Level is just as big, perhaps even bigger, as it ever was but because there is so little to the GCSE the amount that is in the A–Level has had to be cut to make them passable at all. It's a knock–on effect, and I think we would do better to address the failings of the secondary education system first.

    One of the criticisms against A–Levels is that of breadth (or lack of it); I would actually cite this as the system's main strength. By the end of the GCSE system, pupils should have a good breadth and depth of knowledge. If they don't, again the problem is with the GCSE system. Writing skills were highlighted along with reasoning and argument as being deficient, I would add to this list basic mathematics as being lacking. Yet again, this is not a problem with the A–Level but the secondary education system, which is in desperate need of an overhaul. A–Levels, with their comparatively focused approach to a subject, enable students to really gain a great depth of knowledge in subjects they enjoy whilst removing subject areas that they are not so fond of/strong at.

    The one area in which A–Levels really are failing though, as Simon pointed out, is in their ability to differentiate students. By basic observation, if more and more people are getting top grades, then their use as a grading and sorting system is non–existent. The fact is that such grading can, must, and always will occur. Universities are talking about introducing more and more tests and entrants exams similar to Cambridge STEP papers, and it's not hard to see why. One way or another, the brightest students will be sorted and picked by the best universities, and so on and so forth down the line. The politician's ideal of everyone achieving equally is a nonsensical dream, simply because we are not all born of equal ability. As such, the grading of A–Levels and indeed the rest of our education is something that requires a policy rethink on a large scale.

    26 Aug 2005, 23:11


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