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Thursday, 16 August, 2001, 17:57 GMT 18:57 UK
So are A-levels getting easier?
classroom
Students just work harder, it is said
Ministers, exam officials and teachers' unions - not to mention students themselves - have reacted angrily to the suggestion that the continued increase in the A-level pass rate means the exams are getting easier.

The thought arises in some minds because this year - for the 18th year in a row - students have outperformed their predecessors.

% passing - % getting A grades
1991: 78.0 - 11.9
1992: 79.8 - 12.8
1993: 81.1 - 13.8
1994: 83.0 - 14.8
1995: 84.2 - 15.8
1996: 86.0 - 16.2
1997: 87.7 - 16.3
1998: 88.2 - 17.2
1999: 88.9 - 17.8
2000: 89.5 - 18.1
2001: 89.6 - 18.6

The overall pass rate in England this year was 89.6% - with 18.6% of entries being awarded A grades.

Back in 1981 the A-level pass rate in England was 68.1%.

'Not what it was'

Not for the first time the head of policy at the Institute of Directors, Ruth Lea, was sceptical.

"It's grade inflation all round, I don't think there's any doubt about that," she said.


It's grade inflation all round, I don't think there's any doubt about that

Ruth Lea, Institute of Directors
"We congratulate students for their success and hard work but, from an employer's point of view, the A-level now is not the A-level of 20 years ago.

"I just wish people could concede this point and move on because we have this sterile debate every year."

The former chief inspector of schools in England, Chris Woodhead, called for a review of the A-level exams.

"I think one has to ask whether the A-levels this year are as intellectually vigorous as they were 10, 15, 20 years ago," he said.

He said that if everyone passed an examination it was not fulfilling its prime function of discriminating between them.

Contributors to BBC News Online's Talking Point have said that some university courses have had to become longer in recent years - to cover ground students have no longer done for their A-levels.

Changes

Dr Duncan Campbell wrote: "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."

But others say that, where once examining bodies had set percentages to fit within each grade band, they now apply a free marking policy under which everybody could get an A if they responded with model answers.

Prior to 1987 results were decided on the basis of so-called "norm referencing" - in effect 30% each year were expected to fail however well they did, and the pass rate was more or less constant at just under 70%.

The rising pass rate followed the switch to "criterion referencing" - whereby grades are awarded against pre-determined performance criteria.

In 1989, when three out of four students passed, exam chiefs were insisting that standards were not being lowered.


I think it's frankly an insult to them when people say that standards are falling because they are not

Tony Higgins, university admissions service
Tony Higgins, head of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service - and a member of the Institute of Directors - said students now were more strongly motivated.

"You find that students are working harder. They are adopting better examination techniques," he said.

"Teaching techniques are better.

"I think it's frankly an insult to them when people say that standards are falling because they are not. They are just working harder and better."

tony higgins, ucas
Tony Higgins: "Better techniques"
The general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, David Hart, echoed his comments.

"The standards are not being dumbed down. Grade inflation is not taking place. It's hard work. It's good teaching.

"I see no reason at all why, if people can improve their performance in other walks of life, why can't you improve your performance in examinations?"

Mr Hart said the exam boards and the qualifications authorities made sure that standards were being maintained.

'No evidence'

An inquiry in 1996 into exam standards failed to find any evidence that exams had got easier over the preceding 20 years.

But it was hampered by incomplete records of past exam papers, and failed to end the annual argument.

The inquiry report, Standards over Time, led to the setting up of panels of experts to oversee subject checks.

Late last year the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) established an international panel to check on standards.

The panel is chaired by Eva Baker of the US National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at UCLA.

It first met in February and will be looking at this year's exam process.

A QCA spokesman said it was unlikely to have anything to report until September at the earliest.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
David Hart, National Association of Head Teachers
"Standards are not being dumbed down"
Chris Woodhead, Former Chief Inspector of Schools
"We need to review what is going on"
Exam results in the UK

GCSEs/GNVQs

A/AS-levels

Success stories

Features

Row over new exams

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TALKING POINT

Go to BBC Student EssentialsExam results?
Essential advice and information for students
See also:

12 Dec 00 | UK Education
28 Jan 00 | UK Education
09 Jul 98 | UK Education
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