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August 12, 2007

Dumbed Down Exams

The Observer makes a remarkable statement today in a leader:

There is no evidence that exams have been 'dumbed down'.

As Wat points out, there's a government report (for the Office of National Statistics) which provides just that evidence:

The study is here. Its approach is to compare the A Level performance of pupils with the same pupils' performance in a standardised test of academic ability known as ITDA (International Test of Developed Academic Ability). The data has been collected every year since 1988, and currently covers 1400 schools (NB from 2002 the test became the TDA: see study p5).
Thus, for English Lit, pupils with the same ITDA score are now getting an A Level over one grade higher, and for Biology, nearly two grades higher. For Maths, the increase is an astonishing three and a half grades. Overall, the change is about two grades, as reported.

The authors of the study conclude:

"A level grades achieved in 2006 certainly do correspond to a lower level of general academic ability than the same grades would have done in previous years. Whether or not they are better taught makes no difference to this interpretation; the same grade corresponds to a lower level of general ability."

That sort of ignorance of the facts makes me think that Polly is now moonlighting on weekends.

August 12, 2007 in Academia | Permalink


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Of course A-levels are easier, much easier. There has been substantial inflation.

The report from Durham University (which isn't new but has actually been available for about 2 years. I read it then, and it's a fine piece of work IMO) is more about _quantifying_ the degree of inflation.

However, I believe that old style A-levels were too difficult. They were a huge jump from O-levels. For example, 30 years ago I knew a couple of people who stayed on into the 6th form, worked hard, and failed A-levels completely. Two years wasted.

That was wrong, and A-levels needed to be made easier to pass/ replaced with a new and easier form of exams.

However, making them easier to pass shouldn't stop the exams from discriminating at the top level - which is what modern A-levels fail to do (and which the SAT exams achieve easily).

Nor is the above an excuse for blatant lying by the government for the past couiple of decades. I had thought that the government were the only people left in the country who continued to claim that A-level standards had stayed the same - I'll have to add the Observer editorialists to the Hall of Shame.

But, making A-levels easier to pass then they were 30 years ago (which I approve) does not excuse the worst change in theese exams: that they encourage cheating. Indeed, in _many_ school examinations it is now easy to cheat, because they contain course work and take-away papers. There is not the slightest guarantee that the pupil has done the examined work themselves and unaided.

In sum: A-levels are very poor examinations and should be scrapped because they fail to discriminate among good pupils and because they allow (indeed encourage) cheating.

These faults are very, very easy to fix. The mystery is why they were not fixed years ago.

Posted by: Bruce G Charlton | Aug 12, 2007 11:33:23 AM

"Whether or not they are better taught makes no difference to this interpretation; the same grade corresponds to a lower level of general ability."

I don't understand that. It does make a difference to how you interpret it. If teaching to a particular syllabus and for a particular exam was not better, then it would suggest the exam had got easier. If teaching that syllabus and for a certain exam was better, then it could mean the exam hadn't got easier.

Posted by: Matthew | Aug 12, 2007 12:06:41 PM


Have you considered that the 'O' Levels might have been too easy?

On the more general point, the Observer is entirely correct in saying "there is no evidence". Provided, of course, they confined their research to official government press briefings and ministerial utterings.

Posted by: The Remittance Man | Aug 12, 2007 12:10:19 PM

Remittance man said: "Have you considered that the 'O' Levels might have been too easy?"

O-levels were elite examinations. From memory the median pupil mid-1970s was below the level of an O-level pass - in fact the median was about CSE grade 4, I recall. (From memory) only about 20 percent of pupils got a set of O-levels.

In other words, a considerably smaller proportion of the UK cohort left school with a set of O-levels in 1977 than graduate with an honours degree in 2007 (above 40 percent of the cohort now do a degree).

So, I don't think O-levels were too easy. But the gap between them and A-levels was too big, and led to nasty shocks, By contrast I think the step from Scottish O-grades to Highers was relatively modest.

(A-levels entailed studying 3 subjects for 2 years; while Highers were 5 subjects in 1 year - so Highers included less than half the amount of work in an A-level.)

Posted by: Bruce G Charlton | Aug 12, 2007 1:00:00 PM

In the early 60s we practiced for Higher French using A-level papers because our French master thought it best to practice on papers that were harder - "but only a wee bit". At University, we found that the people with Science A levels were roughly one University term ahead of those with Highers. But since the cleverest in the class had Highers - their English equivalents having gone to Oxbridge - even in the freshers' Christmas exams you often got the people with Highers coming top. The notion that A-levels were a Gold Standard has always seemed to me implausible - I suspect that you'd have to look to the Lycees and Gymnasiums for that. Of course, Shirley Williams and Anthony Crosland decided to model Secondary education on the most risible of the systems in the developed world - American High Schools. Gee!

Posted by: dearieme | Aug 12, 2007 3:19:38 PM

Re waht Rem Man says, I think some O-Levels may have been a bit too easy 25 years ago when I did them, especially Chemistry. Others were pretty tough though.

Anyway, yes of course GSCEs and A Levels have been totally dumbed down, anybody who says otherwise is a lying shithead.

Posted by: Mark Wadsworth | Aug 12, 2007 4:56:02 PM

As someone who makes as good money as a private tutor to the children of pathetically pushy middle class I am all in favour of dumbing down. The job was always reasonably easy, but now it is money for old rope. The only bit of the job that has got worse is the modern tendency of nearly every parent to regard their child as bright, despite the perceived need for extra tuition. Politeness and the need not to annoy my employers means that I don't correct them.

My only worry is that I'll be out of work when the state decides to award A grades to every child regardless of ability. This can't be far off, and what parent would employ me then?

Posted by: pete | Aug 12, 2007 8:25:39 PM

an average of two grades over the course of twenty years seems to me like a very low rate of inflation indeed.

Tim adds: Out of five? 40% over 20 years is low?

Posted by: dsquared | Aug 13, 2007 12:09:38 AM

There is no doubt whatever that A levels have become easier, especially in science and mathematics. The decline started in the 80's and has gathered pace. I downloaded some sample maths papers recently and was flabberghasted. The typical question would not have passed muster in the O level I took in 1985. I honestly could not conceive of scoring less than 100% on the exams I looked at.

Posted by: David Gillies | Aug 13, 2007 1:39:02 AM

I would nominate this Observer leader for the title of worst ever leader article. In the paper's defence, even its own readers agree with me.

So last year's pass rate for A levels was 96%. Who will offer me 3:1 that it reaches 100% this year?

Posted by: pommygranate | Aug 13, 2007 5:37:04 AM

[Tim adds: Out of five? 40% over 20 years is low?]

1.4^(1/20)-1 = 1.7% inflation pa.

Posted by: dsquared | Aug 13, 2007 11:01:45 AM

And if it is reasonable to define a productivity improvement in teaching as the ability to bring a pupil of given underlying ability to a higher standard against a particular test, then I think that 1.7% pa productivity growth doesn't seem unreasonable.

Posted by: dsquared | Aug 13, 2007 11:12:36 AM