Devaluing the gold standard
How have A-levels got easier? A school-leaver from 2004 writes.
The annual furore over A-level results has come around again, with the government this year starting its pre-emptive defence an entire week before the numbers were even announced. Nevertheless, it faces heavy criticism over the latest rise in pass marks; only 3.8 per cent of the 265,000 students whose results became available yesterday failed an exam (1). I took my A-levels only last year, but I recognise that there has been a drop in standards.
An inspection of A-level papers from the past few years explains the rising pass marks. In the listening section of the French A-level, for example, there is a clear decline in difficulty. The texts that the candidates must listen to show a trend of decreasing speed of delivery and an increasingly predictable vocabulary. More generally, students are expected to memorise less and rely more on skills that they have acquired. This may help those who find it hard to remember large quantities of information, but it damages the academic rigour of the exams.
The predictability of exam papers has certainly increased in recent times. With growing regulation of the boards following their privatisation, the syllabi have become far more restricted. The element of surprise has been lessened. Worried about potential complaints from parents that the syllabus didn’t clearly specify that a certain topic might be asked about, the boards have produced much more transparent course specifications. Where an English literature question on Charles Dickens’ Hard Times might before have unexpectedly asked about the political context of the novel to give the examinees a challenge, the questions now rigidly stick to character, theme and plot.
When education minister Lord Adonis partly explained the pass mark rise by ‘better teaching’ (2), he was right in a sense: teachers have learnt to prepare their students more adequately for the new syllabi, and know which topics they no longer need teach. The boards have managed to largely throw out the factor of luck from the exams, but this has had unintended effects. Although the new syllabi are more efficient and easier to use, they are also easier to learn.
The system of retaking modules also makes A-levels easier. In the past, different topics of the syllabus were addressed gradually over two years without being examined. This allowed the students to piece together the different parts at the end of the course, and meant the whole syllabus needed to be learnt and understood at once for a pass to be achieved. With the current system, many courses are split into modules that can be taken separately and subsequently re-taken if necessary. This is especially notable in the maths A-level. With some students taking one or two of the easier modules early at the same time as their GCSE exams, they may have as many as five opportunities to get their desired mark. As one student told me, ‘Retaking modules helps a lot with maths – you can get really high marks on the modules from the first year, and then need much lower marks for the harder things later’.
Coursework is another example. In essay-based subjects, coursework can often be submitted for suggestions from the teacher a few times before being sent to the board for marking. With the combination of increasingly easy plagiarism from the internet and teachers looking to get the best marks possible for their pupils, this has become a soft option. The syllabi for some boards’ modern languages courses include a choice between submitting coursework and having to take an extra written exam. When given the option of writing an essay at leisure with the help of friends and family, few students choose to face another pressurised exam.
All in all, A-levels aren’t yet easy. They have, however, become devalued by a system looking to turn examinations into a ‘marathon’ where ‘growing numbers can successfully complete the course’. Examiners as far back as 2002 talked of reaching a 100 per cent pass rate within years, wanting to ‘drive failure out of the system’ (3). There has been a widespread desire this year to congratulate all the A-level candidates on their hard work and achievements. It remains a shame, however, that the more able of those taking the exams have not been given a real challenge to get their teeth into.
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