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Thursday, 18 October, 2001, 15:13 GMT 16:13 UK
Exams 'not easier'
GCSE candidates in 1988
Flashback to a 1988 GCSE exam: Easier?
The exams quango has rebutted claims that the GCSE pass rate has been going up because the exams have been getting easier.

When this year's results came out in August the number of pupils in England, Wales and Northern Ireland achieving grades A* to C had gone up 0.5 points to 57.1% - although the overall pass rate at all grades was unchanged at 97.9%.

A retiring maths examiner for the OCR exam board, Jeffrey Robinson, caused a row by saying the improvements were down to a systematic lowering of pass marks, rather than harder work on the part of pupils and their teachers.

But the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has now produced a report rejecting his claims one by one.

And Mr Robinson has reacted angrily to the QCA's report, dismissed as "lies" the claim that his criticisms were not based on fact.

'Harder'

According to the QCA, the maths exams had become harder, in that calculators were now banned from one of the two papers and students had fewer formulae to help them.

The papers were not the same as in 1989, which Mr Robinson had used as a comparison - there was more algebra, for instance.

The questions within the three levels of difficulty in the maths GCSEs were now harder - it was easier to get a higher grade in 1989.

Mr Robinson also claimed the minimum marks needed to get different grades had been lowered throughout the 90s.

"This is not true," the QCA said. "There has been no such steady decline."

Tweaking

There had been "variations" in the "grade boundaries" - the marks needed to get a particular grade.

This had been done for decades, the QCA said, because despite examiners' best endeavours papers could turn out to have been more or less difficult than intended - so it would be unfair not to adjust the pass marks.

And the authority said a recent five-year review of GCSE maths by an independent panel had found that, between 1995 and 1999, papers had actually become more demanding.

The School Standards Minister, Stephen Timms, said he hoped students wouldn't be discouraged by "the annual clamour of dumbing down", because new research showed people with GCSE were more likely to earn more in later life.

"This government has always recognised that public confidence in our exams is crucial," he added.

"We have insisted on tough standards from our examiners in the past and will continue to do so. There will be no let-up."

Attacked

Mr Robinson attacked the government's stance, saying: "The point that there has been no steady decline is absolutely untrue.

"In every case, the grade threshold has gone down every year without exception.

"If that isn't a steady decline, I'm not quite sure what is.

"There have been occasional blips where the threshold moved up a couple of marks but overall, the trend has been inexorably downwards.

"If they are quite prepared to put out statements that are lies, it is very difficult to know how to counteract them," he said.

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