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Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Why The Whole Exam Standards Debate Is Stupid

Let me just get this rant out of the way before the whole debate starts.

I'm talking about the yearly debate about exam results. The yearly argument that always starts in light of the yearly increase in passes at A-level and GCSE misses the point each and every year.

The point is that exam results are a fix.

Before any student sits down to take an exam, the results are - to some extent - pre-determined.

Don't get me wrong - the results of each student have not been decided.

But the percentage of students which will achieve As, Bs, Cs and Ds and so on has been decided. The exam board has decided. The exam board knows that they want, say, 5% of students to get As. Then then get the papers in, mark them, and allocate the boundaries accordingly.

So it's the exam boards that decide whether or not the passes will go up and down. If they decide they want more As one year, they do it.

The situation is compounded by the number of exam boards, and the fact they all compete for business. I sat exams in Southern England, but I have qualifications from boards all over the country - the Midland Board, the London board, the Northern board.

The fact is that schools pick and choose boards. And, in an age of more and more league tables, they know exactly which board give the highest number of As. They also know that if a new course is made available, chances are that the board will want a higher number of passes so as to ensure more schools will pick that course next year.

Here's the scoop: if we want to ensure that every student is judged in the same way and against the same standards, make sure there's only one exam board. Every student takes the same exam. And make sure that there is no pre-judgement on the percentage of students who get As. Make it clear at the outset of the course what the boundaries are for As, Bs and Cs.

Only then will the debate on the number of passes make any sense. People who talk about declining standards are missing the point - the point is that it's all one big fix, one big sham, and to imply anything else is misleading and unhelpful.

All that said - good luck to anyone who is getting their results tomorrow. May you get what you were hoping for. And, if you don't, remember that there are very few people who hated university - chances are you will love those three years, wherever you wind up.


  • At 2:05 PM, Blogger Fizzwhizz said…

    Of course A levels are getting easier, how else would Stuart from Big Brother manage to get four As??

    Seriously though, the reason more people are getting As is that nowadays you do a modular course and you are allowed to retake modules that you don't do well at, as many times as you like. This is of course a very good thing as the point of school is not to churn out 18-year-olds with a set of ratings determining how good or bad they are at doing exams, it is to teach kids stuff, and if it takes them several goes to learn it, so what, as long as they end up knowing useful stuff.

    Personally I think grades are a total waste of time. Lots of people are very clever but just aren't very good at exams, or something happens on the day that makes them perform badly (eg the crippling period pain I had on the long-ago day of my chemistry GCSE which doubtless had a role to play in me getting a B...although I wasn't very good at chemistry anyway, I must admit). Schoolwork should be assessed continually to make sure kids are learning and not getting lost or confused, but why grade people on it and introduce that weird testosteroney element of competition?

    And another thing!! Why do schools insists on telling kids that there is a correlation between hard work and success? As any reasonably awake adult knows, and most people discover to their disiilusionment when they leave school and enter the real world, lots of people work really hard all their lives and never achieve squat while others do fuck all and sail ahead. Some people are unlucky; some are just stupid. Why tell kids that if they keep on working harder and harder, eventually they'll get an A, as my teachers always told me? Surely better to prepare me mentally for the fact that most of us will be mediocre for most of our lives, and actually there's nothing wrong with that.

    Oh I have so many issues with the education system I could go on all day, but this isn't my blog so I'll shut up now. But one last thing: have you ever met anyone who thinks our current education system is working OK, who isn't a complete twat of the "toughen you up at the right age" brigade? No, neither have I. So why do we persist with this out-dated system??

  • At 5:24 PM, Blogger Hypatia said…

    Hear hear! Fabulous points made, ladies, and down with all this unnecessary outrage! I wish I could add to this as I've got all sorts of things I'd like to say about A levels and schooling in general (I come from a long line of teachers and academics, doncha know) but there is neither time nor space for it. Bravo Fizzwhizz and McReadie - we'll continue this another time...


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