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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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!
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?
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.
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Yes, everyone is more intelligent now and the exams are far harder. That's why everyone leaves university these days can't spell.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
Essential info - or phone, free: 0808 100 8000
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