Europe South Asia Asia Pacific Americas Middle East Africa BBC Homepage World Service Education

 You are in: Talking Point
Front Page 
UK Politics 
Talking Point 
In Depth 

Commonwealth Games 2002

BBC Sport

BBC Weather

Wednesday, 22 August, 2001, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Exam D-day: Why do results keep getting better?
Students in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are today finding out the results of their advanced level exams.

The A-level pass rate has risen again, to 89.8% - with 18.6% of entries being awarded A grades.

The controversial new AS-levels are said to have been a great success - in spite of the row over their implementation.

In the first year of the exams the pass rate was 86.6% with 17% of entries getting grade A. Women did even better than men in the new exam than they did in A-levels, now in their 50th year.

Tell us your experiences. If you're a student, were you happy with today's outcome or do you feel that you could have done better? If you're an examiner, do you feel that standards have improved or declined? Do girls benefit unfairly from the new system? Are the exams becoming easier?

This debate is now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Your reaction

I do not consider myself to be highly intelligent. I have worked hard through all my schooling in order to further myself. I remember feeling silly in maths class when I couldn't grasp what everyone else could. I stuck at it and worked even harder than my peers. For me all my efforts paid off I did well in my GCSE's and also my A'levels. It was a personal achievement that I managed to get decent grades. Why are people so sharp in putting people down. I'm now studying at university and still pushing myself to my own limit. I don't want to be compared with students from years ago any achievement should be personal and not judged.
Stacey, UK

It is a glaring contradiction

B Maguire, UK
No, John McVey, you're not alone. A lot of us have been thinking that for a very long time. It is a glaring contradiction. Also, to the number of people here who have talked about comparisons with past papers being invalid, especially in science, because of all the great new advances that have been made in the last 30 years, I'd just like to say this.

Fundamental advances in science over the last few decades have been few and far between. Technology has advanced massively - not science. Take physics for example. There have been no great fundamental advances made at all since the days of Einstein, Planck, de Broglie etc in the early 20th Century. They founded the subjects of Quantum physics and relativity that are still known today as MODERN physics. The advances made in the last few decades have been incremental and should barely affect any physics course curriculum.
B Maguire, UK

The grades get higher because we make exams blatantly a lot easier, and therefore high school graduates are just dumber than they used to be. A-levels today are easier than O-levels of the past, no doubt about it. And it doesn't help that teachers aren't exactly rocket scientists either.
Wesley Sawan, England

It is impossible to compare the A-levels of today with those of 30 years ago

Cookie, England
It is impossible to compare the A-levels of today with those of 30 years ago. That's because (in science at least) a lot of what is taught now didn't even exist when the first A-levels were created. People decided that we should learn these new topics and so some of the old stuff was shifted out to make room.
Cookie, England

We are reaching the stage when every other person in the street will have a degree. I have seen my children work extremely hard for their GCSEs, A-levels and degrees. Their results bear testimony to their hard work in the same way that mine did 30 years ago and I get very angry when their efforts are undermined by the press every year. In fact my children probably worked much harder than I did and found the courses more pressured because of the high degree of project work.
Julia, UK

I would be very surprised if A-level passes were not proving easier to get. If the system was anything like it was even a few years back, we would have parents and student suing the exam boards for the student's failure or perhaps for stress induced by taking the exams. So of course it has been dumbed down so now we can all be graduates. Anyway, isn't this all part of Labour's socialist Utopia?
Bilal Patel, London, UK

How is it that numeracy and literacy levels seem to be worsening but exam results are getting better? Am I alone in seeing the inherent contradiction here?
John McVey, Scotland

Today even mundane jobs seem to require a degree

Jim, UK
Who is this supposed dumbing down of exams and ultimately qualifications supposed to help, apart from of course government statistics? Getting five A-levels today does not put you on a path to four more years of hard study at University and then a chance of a good job. Today even mundane jobs seem to require a degree. In order to get the same opportunities that I had when I graduated the young will need to get a MBA or PhD. This ultimately means more student debt or years of study in the evening. Maybe I was lucky but once I had graduated (at 23) I had the time and some spare cash to go out and enjoy the fruits of my labour. Young people have enough to contend with as it is without giving them false hopes, large debts and nothing but years of study to look forward to.
Jim, UK

I fail to understand some of the older members of our society jumping on this 'modern exams are easy' bandwagon. Why? I can only sense a degree of jealousy for what our young people are achieving today. Good on them, we should all be proud of them!
AH, Scotland

Perhaps those that would have the world believe that A-levels are easier now than ever should put their money where their mouth is and actually take them. How can a forty-something tell us that exams are easy when they finished school before the introduction of GCSEs?
Dave, UK

Educational exams and results should be controlled by an independent body

Drew, UK
Business leaders and universities are in prime position to determine whether students are less educated than previously. Their comments prove that A-levels are becoming easier. It is to be expected since the results are controlled by the education boards who are controlled by the Government. Surely it is obvious to everyone that politically, a government cannot have weakening educational standards in their term of office. Two points. Firstly educational exams and results should be controlled by an independent body, in a similar fashion to the Bank of England and interest rates. Secondly, today's children are just as intelligent, they are just being let down by poorer education which is being masked by accommodating civil servants.
Drew, UK

Excuse me for being cynical, but is the A-level pass rate improving year on year because the students taking them are improving year on year? As a mature Open University student, I know what it's like to study and then have an exam. I know what a thrill it is to receive confirmation of a pass. Please, let's leave the kids alone and help celebrate their success, encourage them if they have been disappointed, and tell the naysayers where they can get off.
Dave, UK

Wouldn't it be more disturbing if there was a sharp downturn?

Umair, UK
I took my A-levels 2 years ago and I think that the modular system DOES make life easier for students [I dont think anyone can deny that] but that's no excuse to year on year try and make students feel 'stupider' than their predecessors. Whatever year you did well in, you did well, and that's it. It doesn't matter that some whinging 55-year-old who didn't do that well has a go. Wouldn't it be more disturbing if there was a sharp downturn? Quit complaining !
Umair, UK

I think we are forgetting something here: while it is possible to remove certain topics from a syllabus, it is also possible to ADD topics. My Physics A-level, taken a year ago, may not have included all of the syllabus of fifteen years ago. However, the fundamental aspect of science is that new discoveries are being made all the time. Techniques change; new instruments are created, and scientific theory changes direction. How many past science students can look at the relevant syllabus today and honestly say that they learned 'all that and more'? Science progresses: perhaps we should too. Congratulations to this year's A-level students. You have done extremely well.
Emily Burton, Australia

Exams are not getting easier. There are two main reasons for the improvement in results. First, the teachers are learning not to teach the children the subject, they are teaching them how to pass the exams. If they gloss over a topic integral to the subject which is not covered on the exam, then so be it. Secondly, schools are becoming increasingly obsessed with league tables, so much so that some schools prevent less able students from taking A-levels which the school feels that he/she will not do well in (and thus lower the average mark for the school).
Philip Kelly, UK

It's the outstanding students that I feel sorry for

Sue, UK
I was in the first year of the then new GSCE's, and I did really well. I was very surprised at how easy they were. I then went on to spend the next four summers working at one of the exam authorities checking the GSCE papers. I was utterly amazed at how easy they became. It seemed to me it was becoming difficult to fail these exams, although I was equally amazed at how many 16-year-olds could barely formulate a sentence.

It's the outstanding students that I feel sorry for. Even with the introduction of the A' grade, it is difficult to distinguish the 'very good' from the 'outstanding'. It's the same at A level standard and ultimately at university. People aren't suddenly more intelligent, or even better taught. The exams are without a doubt getting easier, and those who really deserve recognition for their efforts aren't getting it.
Sue, UK

If you think A-levels are getting easier, then you take them, and we'll see quite where the opinions lie at the end of 2 years of hard work. I worked extremely hard to get my grades (last year, though, I may add) and my friends who today found university places secured with some excellently deserved results have definitely not been slacking. It's not the exams getting easier; we are more prepared for them. The system has settled - we work through so many past papers that by the time the exam comes it is nothing special. Maybe the whole notion of the testing should be challenged? And yes, I agree that if everyone passes there is less distinction between "everyone", but then what are STEP and S-levels for, and the option to do extra subjects to broaden one's mind and show a little character... I did Latin A-level "for fun" and don't regret it, even though I study maths!
J, England

Better results are achieved either because the exams are getting easier, because it is easier for students to acquire information and knowledge or because they work harder. Regardless of the reason, I find that the exams should be made more difficult. Having the same quality as 15 years ago is no longer acceptable. The world is getting more and more complex and so should A-Levels. After all there still is a substantial gap between the UK schools and those of most European countries. At last, if students work harder, they have the potential to reach higher standards. There is thus always an argument for making A-Levels more difficult.
David, UK

No matter what decade you were at school, if you're bright then you will shine through

Steve Doig, Netherlands
No matter what decade you were at school, if you're bright then you will shine through. These people talking about learning high power maths at 16 to 18 years old must be idiots. You don't really learn anything of real value at all. Secondary education should be about providing opportunities for students to work hard, gain a diverse range of experiences and to develop their self-confidence - this is currently being achieved. The British 'old school' should wake up and realise that society changes and nowadays we need people with broad experiences of life and not old 'no hopers' who thought they were at the forefront of modern wisdom at 18.
Steve Doig, Netherlands

Comparing material from past exams isn't really meaningful. I left university last year. For my science course we needed to know a lot of geometry we hadn't been taught at school. This is seen as 'proof' that schools are dumbing down. Quite simply, syllabuses change over time, and lots of people get to be employed making the changes. What is GCSE material one year may be A-level another, or degree another, and other pupils may never be taught. Businesses and universities have to accept this.
Andrew, UK

I work in research and development in industry and have been involved in running many projects in conjunction with the traditional universities in the UK. During a visit to one, I noticed on the student common room notice-board in the Engineering Dept that some of the courses had now become 4 years rather than 3. On discussing with the Professor, he in effect, answered your question 'Are the exams becoming easier?' with a most definite yes.
Luke, Rugby, UK

The children of today have more reference materials at the touch of a button

Robbie, UK
I think there is one point that everyone is missing here. What has been the main change in society in the last 10 years? The internet of course! The internet has opened up avenues of study and provides far better access to materials than any of us have ever had in the past. This means the children of today have more reference materials at the touch of a button for A-levels and GCSEs than we had from hours spent in a library. This alone gives them a chance to do far better than previous students. I think we can expect the pass rates to keep climbing as long as the Internet revolution continues to grow.
Robbie, UK

The comments about A-levels being there to pick out the top few percent of the student population doesn't hold water in today's society. Qualifications are increasingly important. That little piece of paper could mean that you are not considered for a position, even if the exams are currently easier and you could do the job. This argument takes place every single year without fail. The year it doesn't is the year that flying pigs will be a common sight in our skies. We should congratulate the students for working so hard and for doing so well. Not questioning the the validity of their grades.
Rachel, Oxford, UK

I was disgusted to hear the head of UCAS say on television that results were improving because students were working harder and were more motivated. This is absolute rubbish and does nothing but denigrate the efforts of previous generations who have always worked hard and, some would say, even harder.
Paul Coyle, England

Every year it's the same, isn't it? As soon as we should be celebrating the success of yet another great set of exam results, and enjoying the fact that our country is becoming more educated, out come the moaners. The moaners are the little group of opinionated graduates and elderly people who didn't do very well at school and project their bitterness and jealousy on to a group of innocent youngsters who may, just may, have put in more work then they did.
Matt, UK

When I opened my Cornflakes this morning, an A-level certificate fell out

Dave Styles, England
I'm not saying it's easier to get A-Levels but when I opened my Cornflakes this morning, an A-level certificate fell out. I'm thinking of retaking my A-Levels as a bit of fun without any study. It will be interesting to see how much my grades improve.
Dave Styles, England

A levels are being devalued. I was in the last year of students to sit O levels, and the year behind me were the first to study GCSEs. When the GCSE lot came to start studying A levels, surprise, surprise, most of the difficult stuff was cut from their exams - I know, it was my responsibility to compare the two syllabuses and see what had been taken out; it was all the hard parts, esp. in physics. When the GCSE lot got to university, my lecturers were astounded at how little the students knew in technical subjects like chemistry. They had to re-teach what used to be taught at A level. That's when this trend really started and it's been continuing since then.
Garry White, UK

I do think that students are working harder than ever

Luke, UK
I actually find this very annoying, the way people talk and say in retrospect that exams are getting easier. I did 5 A-Levels, and it was fairly tough. I do think, however, that students are working harder than ever. Pressures society puts on them in other areas of life make the task even worse, and it is not right, when they have been through such a harrowing experience and worked themselves so hard, accomplished so much, that people should reject that effort and play down the merits of it.

The same as with regards to degrees. People really are working incredibly hard and doing some extraordinary things, probably well beyond the capabilities of those criticising them here. If things are so incredibly easy, why is the rate of suicides and breakdowns so much higher for this age range than for the remainder of the population? Because they are working so hard and being treated so badly that it is becoming a dehumanising experience, and that is something which needs addressing. Those people here, criticising the validity of those results, should be aware that they are a part of the problem.
Luke, UK

What a suprise! Why can't a government admit that standards in education are falling. Once again the public have been humoured by these results. I feel sorry for the students who deep down know that the exams are easier. James Whistler is correct in saying Universities now have to create foundation courses for the lack of knowledge that has not been passed on as it was years ago. I opened my father's A-Level books and commented on how difficult the work was compared to today's standards.
Peter Beresford, UK

Due to falling standards, the better grades are not better results

Harry, UK
If you say A levels are getting easier, students and teachers would feel offended. That is natural and understandable. We all defend our own standards and professions. But, like it or not, A levels must be getting easier. I work as a lecturer at a university. I have seen steadily falling levels of mathematical skills. Physics and chemistry are no better. This is a common view among most of my colleagues. Some math taught years ago are now removed or moved to a higher level. I blame the politicians. If you push 50% of graduates into higher education, then not only the A levels are dumbing down but the so-called higher education as well. Otherwise, why not push to 100%? Students and teachers are working hard. They should be congratulated for the better grades. But due to falling standards, the better grades are not better results. You wait and see higher drop-out rate.
Harry, UK

It is difficult to compare the French equivalent with A levels as the Baccalaureat is not so specialised. The French system however demands a more intellectual approach and requires the students to show that they can apply their knowledge rather than regurgitating information. Maybe exams are getting easier in the UK. I do think however that students who are getting their results today and who will have worked hard to get them don't need to have their efforts devalued in this way. If the exams need toughening up, let the education authorities acknowledge the fact and make the necessary improvements.
Anne, French living in the UK

Why is it that 'A' Level results get relentlessly better year-on-year, whilst employers' candidate aptitude test and psychometric test results are getting worse year-on-year? Do these students suddenly lose all their ability as soon as they open the results envelope or have one set of test been dumbed down whilst the other set remains the same?
Colin, Birmingham

I have to say that the quality of our students is about the same as it was 15 years ago

Steve, UK
As a former admissions officer of a scientific department at a major English university I have to say that the quality of our students is about the same as it was 15 years ago. However our standard offer has moved from BCC to AAB in that period to maintain that quality. Read into that what you will. What concerns my colleagues and I most is the decline in mathematical skills over this period which makes the task of getting our science and engineering graduates up to the standard of our EU counterparts very difficult.
Steve, UK

I can't speak for the A-levels, but I just got my ASs. I got straight A's but I'm still enraged by the mess-up that was the past year. No matter how it turned out (which was not favourable for everyone), mistakes have been made in gargantuan numbers and students and teachers must not forget what we had to endure. We may have delivered, but the Government still has a lot to answer for.
Russ, England

Surely the improvement of A-level results is due to the fact that students are now better prepared for these examinations. Teaching has improved and students now have the chance to retake a module if they do not do too well first time round. Cramming does work, I have seen people who can hardly converse in English getting 600+ points in the verbal part of the GRE, simply because they go and memorise the whole dictionary! I do not for one moment believe that today's students are more intelligent than those 10 or 20 years ago.
Andy, UK

Yes, everyone is more intelligent now and the exams are far harder. That's why everyone leaves university these days can't spell.
M.P. Marshall, UK

Andy Millward is right. In the past it didn't matter if one year's paper was easier than the last because you were competing against the other examinees, not against the paper. 'A' grades would only be awarded to the top 5%, B grades to the next 10% and so on. Now, however, you get a grade depending on the mark you get which means differences between papers can lead to huge discrepancies from year to year.
Phil Moores, UK

A few years ago I decided to take an A-level at night school at age 30 as I had never gone beyond O-levels at school. I thought it best to start with a GCSE first as I wasn't used to structured learning anymore. I was amazed how easy the GCSE was and even the A-level proved to be a breeze (both achieved as A's). Maybe I'm brighter or more used to advanced concepts than I was then? I'm more convinced the O-levels I took back then were harder though.
Iain, UK

Sitting four or more A-levels is becoming commonplace

James Whistler, UK
Oh, please. Without wishing to demean the efforts and achievements of this year's A-level students, I think the answer to this is obvious. Of course they are getting easier - large chunks of the syllabus have often simply been omitted. I studied physics at university ten years ago and was amazed to learn that the course I sat is now four years long instead of three - the entire first year being spent catching up on mathematics now not covered at A-level. In addition to this is the fact that sitting four or more A-levels is becoming commonplace. Ten years ago, three was the norm, four exceptional and five unheard of. Schools would simply not allow a student to sit five A-levels because the workload was considered too great even for the exceptionally gifted.
James Whistler, UK

As a 'young person' in the work place I find Alan's remark insulting. I think that due to increased education and technical awareness the younger employee has the edge over many older skilled workers,
Iain, Scotland

The crisis in teaching deepens, the results keep improving. It's time to admit that they are easier - or students are turning their backs on the harder subjects. This is no fault of those who have done well and I congratulate them.
Nick, UK

There is quantifiable evidence that A-levels are easier in recent years. Some years ago the London Mathematical Society discovered that university courses with a high mathematical content were now one year longer because though the students arrived with A-level grades the same as those from previous generations, they did not know enough to be able to undertake a degree course with a high mathematical content. So remedial courses had to be provided to bring the students up to the required standard. If that is not an irrefutable case of A-levels being easier, then we must be living in the sort of topsy-turvy country where Government ministers would condemn television programmes that they have not even seen.
Dr Duncan Campbell, UK

Why is it every year we have to try and say that the exams are a fix?

Lisa, UK
Why is it every year we have to try and say that the exams are a fix? Surely we need to concentrate on improving education for the people who are less academically gifted and leave school with no qualifications, rather than knocking those who have done well.
Lisa, UK

The marking policy has changed. Where once examining bodies had set percentages to fit within each grade band, they now apply a free marking policy whereby everybody could get an A if they responded with model answers.
Andy Millward, UK

Maybe. It might depend on the subject. Certainly my brother and I found the past papers we practised with for A-level were harder than the actual ones we took. But here's some evidence. Parts of the Maths course my father did for O-level were in my A-level syllabus and not in GCSE. These same parts then turned up in my younger brother's degree course and were only briefly covered in his A-levels! If that's not evidence of some dumbing down, I don't know what is...
Mat Allen, UK

No doubt teaching skills are continually improving, whilst more and more youngsters also realise the importance of gaining good results. So no, I don't think exams are getting any easier. However, despite the excitement of these students, many of them are yet to experience the reality that hard work and good results don't always guarantee you a worthwhile job. I, for one, deeply regret opting for higher education as it has done nothing to help me. My heart bleeds for any others who experience this.
Gwynfor Lloyd, Aberystwyth, Wales

Well done to everyone who got the grades that they wanted today!

Mark, Wales
Results keep getting better because the exams are easier. That however is a long way from saying they are easy. I took my A-levels (the 3 sciences and maths) 6 years ago and I can honestly say that I needed to work harder in those two years than I have ever had to do in four years of university or the two years of work that have followed. A-level standards are far more consistent than those of university courses and they are still one of the main measures that employers look for when recruiting, so well done to everyone who got the grades that they wanted today!
Mark, Wales

If A-level exams are getting tougher but with results consistently higher then I think that means I must have been pretty stupid when I took my A' Levels 20 years ago.
Aidan, Temporarliy in the UK

The results keep 'improving' because the exams are easier than they used to be. It is claimed that teaching methods have got better but ask employers who take on employees nowadays and find their education lacking despite paper qualifications. If indeed there has been such a miraculous improvement then it surely means we do not need to spend more money on education. Many employers such as myself now want higher qualifications than previously even though in the past we would have asked only for A-levels.
Phil, UK

Standards are falling

Davy, UK
Standards are falling. As someone who regularly has to examine job application forms and interview candidates I am often astounded by the poor educational and intellectual levels shown by supposedly very well qualified people. All these examinations do is to give a false sense of achievement to mediocre students. As soon as they enter the job market, they come down to earth with a bump.
Davy, UK

Results get better because either the exams or the marking are less rigorous - end of story. Originally A-levels were for the top few percent, now they are for the top fifty percent. They are in no way the same exam and haven't been for the last six or seven years. Also the modular nature of modern A-levels ensures that there are more chances to pass well.
Caroline, England

It's difficult to judge exactly how the standards have changed, without comparing the papers with older ones, but there are certainly indications that there has been a change. All I can really say for certain is based on my own experience. I took my A-levels in 1976 and in the case of chemistry and physics it was the first year of a new style exam for one of them and the second year of the new style for the other. There's no doubt that the exams I took were easier than the older style used previously. How things have changed since then is more difficult to say, because I've not compared the papers, but it's hard to believe that today's students are so vastly more intelligent and knowledgeable than those of my generation, as the improvement in results suggest. If there really has been such an improvement, then A-levels should be made harder, since surely the whole point is to find the top few percent of the student population.
David Jackson, UK

I was pleased that I passed for my university place but felt I could have done better

Matt, UK
Having gone into school for my results, I was pleased that I passed for my university place, but felt I could have done better. I believe that anyone who says exams are easier is very much wrong. People are just living in the past and chiding students who are working harder. Having been given papers from 15 years ago as practice for current exams, I can safely say that there is absolutely no difference in difficulty levels.
Matt, UK

Maybe they are getting higher results, but I would say the quality of young person in the work place is dropping. Perhaps, I am just getting old.
Alan, UK in NL

It is my opinion that A-levels are becoming easier - I sat mine 3 years ago, taking six subjects to prove the point. Despite doing six, I still managed to achieve the 24 points required to study at university (I got two A's, two B's, a C and a D). An example of the exams getting easier can be seen in the maths courses. The one I took had a fundamental physics/engineering technique removed two years earlier and somewhat hinders the progress of students on university courses.
Paul, Isle of Man

Go to BBC Student EssentialsExam results?
Essential info - or phone, free: 0808 100 8000
See also:

16 Aug 01 | Education
Crunch time for A-level students
30 Mar 01 | Education
Concern over new A-level results

Links to more Talking Point stories