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Monday 21st January 2013

This is yet another question that I get asked a lot.

However, just a few seconds' thought will show that the question "are A-levels getting easier?" is so open to so many interpretations as to be practically meaningless. What is 'easy' to one person may be 'difficult' to another - and it is difficult to see how 'easiness' can be measured objectively.

A more realistic question would be "are more people getting higher grades?" This is a question to which there is clearly a quantitative answer.

Under the old NORMATIVE MARKING system (prior to 1988) the proportion of people getting a given grade was fixed at:

A 10%; B 15%; C 10%; D 15%; E 20%; Fail 30%.

by comparison the latest (2012) figures for all A-levels subjects overall (taken from THE STUDENT PERFORMANCE ANALYSIS SITE by Brian Tubbs which lists percentage grade requirements for all subjects since 1993) were as follows:

A* 7.9%; A 18.7%; B 26%; C 24%; D 14.9%; E 6.5%; U (fail) 2%.

In short, under the old normative grading system only 70% of people got 'pass' grades, whereas nowadays the figure is nearer 98%!

Put another way, 30% of candidates routinely failed A-levels prior to 1988 whereas now the figure is only 2%. Furthermore the proportion of A-grades has risen from 10% to over 27% in that time.

The answer to the question "are people getting higher grades?" Is therefore demonstrably "yes!"

This rather alarming situation has been helped somewhat by the introduction of the A* grade, currently available to the top 8% or so of candidates and therefore comparable to the 'old' grade 'A'. However, this still leaves a significant amount of 'grade inflation' at the 'B', 'C', 'D', and 'E' levels to be dealt with to make A-levels a genuinely useful indicator of ability to admissions tutors and employers.

Somewhat ironically Ofqual (the regulators of the nation's examination boards) recommended last year that the percentage of 'A' grades should be capped at 28%. It is difficult to see how things could be arranged otherwise without being massively unfair to up-and-coming candidates wishing only to be judged by the same standards as the previous year. However, the very nature of the unfit-for-purpose 'grade reference marking' system currently used means that grade inflation is effectively built-in. Furthermore, our national 'system' of different profit-making examination boards (about which I shall write more in a future blog) competing to get candidates means that there is an inevitable tendency to make examinations 'easier' to attract more customers.

So the examination boards have painted themselves into a corner. It seems as though whenever the media happen to notice that there has been particularly obvious grade inflation the examination boards respond by throwing in a 'correction' (as happened in last summer's examinations when grades fell by a factor not seen in 20 years - see this article in THE DAILY TELEGRAPH) This is excellent for my business as I get a stack or students in September neding to retake, but is a complete travesty of justice as far as the students are concerned. Once the disheartening 'correction' has taken place it is then business as usual as the proportion of high grades creep slowly back upwards.

Amusingly (or insultingly, depending on your viewpoint) at least one examination board (the AQA) has asserted that this year's massive grade drop has been due to a 'Change in Student Profile' (see the video at the Daily Telegraph site given above). Do I believe them?, actually. Sadly it is not just examination boards whom we can no longer trust in British public life - but it is incompetent, politically-driven examination boards who have the potential to have the greatest impact upon our greatest national asset.

What can people do about this? Well, as a start they can educated themselves as to what is going on. I hope that this blog might start parents off on the trail of self-discovery which might end in letters of compaints to schools, examination boards, MPs and all the other people who have created this unholy mess in the first place. The current wall of indifference met in all quarters will simply allow the rather unpleasant status quo to survive and flourish.

The ironic thing from my point of view is that with the exception of one or two utterly assinine 'describe' questions (and virtually all of the Edexcel A-level biology examination - about which more in a later blog) I personally find the content of curent A-level biology examinations to be generally pretty high. Most of the questions are often searching, ingenious and far more fun than they were when I took the examination in 1977.

Of course, I only have the 1977 paper and the ones between 1989 and 2012 to judge by, but in terms of subjective 'difficulty' I would assess the 'new' papers to be just as 'difficult' as the one I took in the late 70s. The emphasis is rather different - whereas we were expected to memorise vast chunks of pointless facts without understanding them, nowadays those same facts are given in the question as 'stimulus material' and rather searching questions testing understanding are asked around those facts. Personally I think that this is a much better test of a student's ability than the one I faced in my own youth.

It is just such a pity that this whole system has been let down by an ill thought-out move to grade reference marking in the late 80s. This, coupled with the existence of competing examination boards has been a large part of the accelerating decline of educational standards which we have seen in recent years. Just one national examination board, coupled with a return to normative marking (oddly enough, the system used in almost every other country on earth) would go a long way toward sorting out this mess.

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