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Monday, 19 August, 2002, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
A-levels: Are they getting easier?
The pass rate for this year's A-levels has shot up by 4.5 percentage points, to 94.3%.
The good results mean most students will have gained the required grades for a place at university and competition for any remaining places is likely to be fierce.
But the high pass rate has once again led to accusations that the "gold standard" exam is getting easier.
Shadow Education Secretary Damian Green has called for an independent inquiry to establish whether exams were getting easier.
"We need an independent inquiry, not done by one of the government's quangos, to settle once and for all this question of standards over time.
"The people who suffer are the students taking the exams. You can only take the exams put in front of you and if every year it creates this row, I understand why they feel angry."
Do you think A-levels are getting easier? Or is it just hard work paying off? If you took your exams this year, were they as hard as you expected? Tell us what you think.
This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.
As a teacher of nine years I can see that the exams have not got easier at all. When I took A levels in 1987 they were marked solely on the exam. Now students have to perform across the two years in order to succeed. There is a lot of pressure on students to perform and so they work extremely hard. It's about time the media stopped this berating, and started congratulating both students and teachers for all the hard work. Is an exam really failing if all pupils pass it? Or is it down to the fact we are continually striving to raise pupils expectations?
Ellie McGee, UK
I feel genuinely sorry for 18 year olds sitting A Levels today. They didn't create the grade inflation of A levels - they are its victims. The grades required by the top universities today are significantly higher than they were in the late 1980s because A levels are worth less. As in the USA, universities will soon establish their own tests of ability and that will be a welcome development. Tory and Labour Governments have debased the A level coin.
An 11 year old child has just received a grade B pass at A level. Of course the examinations are getting easier.
I find it mind bendingly perplexing that the government says that the higher standards achieved at A-level are due partially to the increasing hard work of students. That would mean that people of my parents' generation were incredibly lazy. I didn't realise that evolution could work so quickly in producing a uniform super-intellectual nation!
You shouldn't have to wait until you have done a degree and are studying for a (privately funded) PHD before the government recognises you as possibly being more intelligent than the next man.
This is what is wrong with this country now.
You sit there and mock the standards today and compare them to years ago when the syllabus was different. The fact is, regardless of whether the exams seem easier or not, you have to learn different stuff. My congratulations to those who got their results. The world may be turning into a PC and hypocritical mass but hopefully the next generation may be able to do something about this.
I am a fourth year medical student. To come to university to study medicine, I needed AAB. However, most of the consultants I am studying under needed only 2 A-levels at grades C and D. I don't believe A-levels are getting easier, but if they were then the higher entrance grades needed for university have more than compensated for it.
I think the talk over these results are absolutely disgusting. We have been under unbelievable pressure. We have taken everything the government has thrown at us with the new AS levels and still managed to produce good grades. To anyone who says that they are easier: you come and sit one and see how well you do!!!
Donna Prescott, England
I am a school teacher and Head of the Business and Economics department of a secondary school in Staffordshire. I strongly object to claims that A' levels are getting easier. Students are attaining good results because of their hard work. The attainment of an A' level no longer depends solely on performance in written examinations. Students are now able to demonstrate their ability through the examination of coursework. I have witnessed an increase in work-load both for students and teachers, and this is reflected in the excellent examination results our country is achieving. Congratulations to both students and teachers.
The hardest exams I've ever taken were A-Level exams, more so than those I took for my degree or chartered professional qualification. I do get the feeling that students are being taught more closely to the syllabus, and students are getting better at learning only what they need to pass. We are often urged to 'work smarter, not just harder'. Should we really doubt the very students who take up that challenge?
Having just done the new A-levels, I'd say they haven't got easier, but the focus of the exams has shifted. The difficulty no longer lies in the complexity of the questions, but in being able to jump through the appropriate hoops and second-guess the examiner. The actual content of the papers is comparatively trivial in some subjects, particularly physics, since it has been made a requirement that it's possible to do A level physics with no maths higher than GCSE level. The desire to create a "level playing field", with exams being "accessible" is admirable, but impractical.
I've been teaching A Levels for over twenty years, and when I show my students an old A Level paper, they are truly shocked. Undoubtedly, the questions are easier now, and the marking standards are more generous (I can say this with certainty as an examiner for the last twelve years) - and, most worryingly, the students are increasingly illiterate. I am not saying that they work less hard than before; my contention is that something is going very wrong in their primary school teaching, and that by the time they reach us at 17 it is too late to remedy it. I used to fret that A Level students couldn't handle apostrophes; I now fret that they cannot handle the capital letter and full stop.
The introduction of modular A-Levels has made them easier. I used to hold first-year tutorials at university and was often told "oh, I haven't done this for two years since the first module".
Kevin Jepson, Germany
I have heard (and I would like this confirming one way or the other) that in previous years, for example, 95%+ would have scored an A grade but now 80%+ would get the same grade. Is it the marking system that has changed to allow more higher grade passes?
We currently have a system where there is more than one body setting exam questions. When head teachers choose which exam board they want to go with, it is only natural that they will choose the one with the 'easier' questions or with the lower pass marks. A single examination board should sort it out. But as a general point of principle, I took my 3 A levels (I went to a grammar school and even the brightest wouldn't even have considered taking more than 3) in 1989. In those days if you got 3 A grade's you were on your way to Oxbridge. Where would 3 A's get you now - the local Poly? Don't get me wrong, I'm not having a go at the students who do work very had to get their exams but makes me angry when they compare their exam grades with mine.
The reason that there has been a larger increase in passes at A level this year is because more students are not going through the two year course and are finishing after one year because their A/S results don't warrant them continuing.
As a teacher for 30 years I know that the standards are not slipping, if anything the work is getting more difficult.
Let's be positive and congratulate those who have done well!
As an employer in the financial services industry, I know that the standard of job applicants and new recruits is rising each year. This is down to the education they receive at both school and university. I am fed up with this annual round of knocking. Money and resources have been channelled into schools to raise standards and that is exactly what has happened. Well done to students and teachers for what I consider to be a source of national pride.
There is no doubt that the content of today's A-levels is easier than it was 10 years ago. Having said that, students now do have more demanding work loads, what with coursework and continuous examinations. The fact remains however, that the results scale is being "watered" down making it harder for employers to sort the good from the bad. It's nonsense to suggest, it is solely through the hard efforts of today's teachers and students, that we see the ever increasing pass rate. Ten years ago, when I was taking my A-Levels, my teachers were certainly committed and hard working (and myself and fellow student's were no lazier or less bright than today's crop).
Surely the pass rates and grades obtained are irrelevant. The mere fact that it is now possible to do five A levels in two years as some pupils do must suggest that the subjects are not taught to anywhere near the same depth and breadth that they were. Whilst the amount of work may vary between subjects I can say that doing three A levels (maths, physics, chemistry) in 1971 involved us in two years of jolly hard work six days a week (school on Saturdays!) with hours of homework every night. If someone had suggested to us then that we had to do another two as well they would have been laughed at, there simply weren't enough hours in the day.
I am the father of two girls, one of them studying Physics in university the other just completed AS's and am always annoyed at the constant carping about lowering standards. I know exactly how hard my daughters have worked and can definitely say it is a lot more than I did in my Grammar school days in the 70s
This debate is so predictable. The only people that think that today's high pass rates are anything other than the result of dumbing down, are those with a vested interest (students, teachers, examiners, politicians etc.). Taken at face value these results must make our students the smartest in the world. The whole examination process is one big joke.
Congratulations to all those who worked hard for their A Levels, regardless of the outcome! This tired debate arrives every year and is a recurring insult to the commitment of young people hoping to better themselves. Pass or fail, your future is now in your hands. Best wishes to you all!
I have just completed the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IB) as an alternative to A-levels this year. Although the IB is often taken as an equivalent to A-levels, those with first hand experience realise that the IB is far more demanding. Students are required to have a broader range of in-depth knowledge, with mandatory mathematics, science, language, literature, and philosophy courses, not to mention obligatory community service hours. A-level students meanwhile can choose a few specific subjects which they are more likely to excel in, omitting the others from their choice of study.
Alex B, England
I recall that it was fairly common for schools not to enter students who they did not expect to pass, as it costs them money. Is this not the reason for higher pass rates? Those whom the school expects to fail don't get entered?
I am anxiously waiting for my results. The chance to re-sit the units on which I'd done badly in the first year was greatly appreciated. The system was new, teachers didn't know to the extent topics were to be taught. When teachers contacted the exam board for queries in my subjects, little help was given. A lot of my teachers were guessing as to the depth of material to be taught but most were persistent in teaching essay writing and analytical skills, which proved to be essential in exams such as history.
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