The annual ‘debate’ over whether or not examinations are easier now than they have been in the past is so much more personal and class driven than commentators and politicians acknowledge.
Intelligent thinkers and observers around this issue all share one common trait; they have all been to school and sat an exam. Indeed it would be safe to posit that the vast majority of those whose opinions reach the largest media audience did so very successfully. High achieving individuals have a tendency to view their time at school with understandable pride. For most, by definition, it must have been a period of high self esteem and reward. Just as one balks at imagining a former partner ever scaling the heights of pleasure and bliss they shared when coupled with you, it can be equally hard to imagine a younger generation thinking, working and learning as well or better than you once did. It is inherently threatening to imagine a brighter and better motivated generation snapping at your heels. For many the ocular proof of said generation’s ignorance and indolence is evident any time one catches a bus, wanders down a high street or tunes in to Big Brother. For some it stands to reason, it stands to COMMON SENSE, that this generation are feeble, spoilt and cosseted in ways in which we never were.
Except that the evidence rather contradicts this analysis every August. Pass rates have a tedious habit of rising, as more and more students seem to be attaining the highest grades. For many, the logical explanation for this puzzling dichotomy between perception and reality can only be that the exams are easier, that a political desire to show improved results has somehow led to a conspiracy to undermine and devalue the qualifications we once strived so hard to attain.
It isn’t difficult to find popularly acceptable evidence to support this viewpoint if you dig around a little. Journalists and television crews have placed old O Level papers in front of GCSE students and taken their bafflement as evidence of the ‘inferiority’ of the new qualification on many occasions. The use of calculators in modern exams is commonly held up as clear evidence of a drop in mathematical standards. Mental arithmetic is frequently the preferred measure of ‘ability’ in numeracy in such media analyses, even if it is of limited contemporary day to day or even academic application. Science papers come in for particular stick when multiple choice questions are used, despite such questions usually being ‘knowledge’ as opposed to ‘skills’ focused (educational conservatives tend to lend primacy to the former).
Curriculums change over time, and the shifting emphases will please some and enrage others. No doubt a student in 2010 will very likely be baffled by much of the terminology used and skills required in an equivalent (very roughly - O Levels were a different beast to the GCSE, a fact rarely acknowledged when comparing like with like) exam from 1960, just as a 65 year will old struggle to meet the requirements of many elements of their grandchild’s paper. Such experiments are silly and near impossible to conduct under objective and meaningful controlled conditions. Different generations would be totally lost in the pedagogical landscape of each other’s classrooms. Times change, requirements shift, and accepting that more teachers and students are working harder and smarter than may have been the case in the past is an anathema to many of a reactionary or conservative persuasion. So the argument rumbles on. Standards have fallen because I believe them to have done so, I can prove it because I knew x at their age, and they now don’t. The fact that I don’t know y is irrelevant because I’ve done very well thank you very much without knowing y, and don’t get me started on behaviour…
Where I do have some sympathy is in the question of whether an A grade is of the same distinguishing value to higher education when 27% of students sitting the paper achieve it as opposed to 10%. There is a case to be made for distinguishing between the very highest achievers in a cohort, if for no other reason than to enable universities to ensure that they are accepting the very best candidates. This year the first A level students will achieve the new A* grade. I doubt that you will hear very much about this, because it is a measure introduced to address just the issue which has the right frothing at the mouth. It plays better to the galleries to point to the (likely) rise in overall A grades and to repeat the insulting attacks on students and educational professionals ad nauseum. To achieve an A* a student needs to score over 90% in both modules of their final A Level year, and at least 80% total across both years of study (including the controversial ‘AS’ examination so hated by Mr Gove). This should provide those who seek to identify the true elite a means of doing so and will be a useful marker of the absolute best students.
The argument tends towards a frustration at so many more students doing well, as if earning top grades were something which we should only encourage in a very small number of people. This notion is elitist and deeply conservative when one exercises the art of deep thought around it (you see, I have been listening Mr Gove). However, those of us who are cheered each year by rises in results among young people should also be cautious. The climate of fear and competition created by league tables will have no doubt helped to drive these improvements in attainment (conservatives seem to have little understanding of, or interest in, the effect this process has had upon state schools). For this reason alone to dismiss targets and competition out of hand is foolish.
The question should be whether the pursuit of higher examination attainment alone is enough. Such a debate should be the real driver to delivering a better skilled and more effective generation of young people. As long as the examination stakes are as high as they are for schools and young people (witness the thousands of young people who will not receive a university place this year as a result of the coalition government), the tendency to coach and hothouse will be in place. Mr Gove may change the mode and language of assessment to one he deems ‘harder’, or one that he feels will better credit knowledge and the acquisition of facts, but schools will still do everything they possibly can up to, and sometimes beyond, cheating in order to protect their statistics. And when we allow the statistics to drive and conclude the debate, we are all at risk of truly having been ‘dumbed down’.