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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 August, 2003, 15:18 GMT 16:18 UK
Are A-levels getting easier?
By Angela Harrison
BBC News Online education staff

More pupils are getting A grades

Hundreds of thousands of students have found out their A-level results, against what must be an annoying backdrop of further claims that the exams are getting easier.

The pass-rate has gone up for the 21st year in a row and more pupils are getting A grades than ever before - about 20% of those taking the exams.

The annual discussions are prompted by claims from groups such as the Institute of Directors, whose director, Ruth Lea, described the exams as "meaningless".

Ministers, exam regulators and boards are frustrated that the focus of A-level day is not solely on the achievement of teenagers.

The exams watchdog, the QCA, has taken out full-page adverts in the national press to praise pupils' achievement.

It can't all be down to better teaching, greater dedication, more intelligent students
Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools

Under the heading "A level of pride", the QCA lists scores of people from the worlds of industry, education and entertainment who want to pay tribute to the hard work of pupils.

But the debate rages on.

The former chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead believes public exams like GCSES and A-levels are getting easier.

"The A-Level examination is not fulfilling the function that it should be, namely it is not identifying the most gifted students for top universities," he told the Today programme on BBC Radio Four.

"When you look at the rate of increase and the fact that each year each new generation does do better then I don't think you are a cynic, you are just intelligently sceptical, if you raise questions about the nature of the examination.

"It can't all be down to better teaching, greater dedication, more intelligent students."

School standards minister David Miliband said no hard evidence had been produced to show that the examinations were getting easier.

A-level poster
An advert praising pupils' efforts is in newspapers
"If Ofsted were reporting that the standards of teaching were falling then I would obviously have concerns if the exam rate was rising, because there would be a clear logical inconsistency there," he said.

"Actually Ofsted report that we have got the best generation of teachers ever."

But there is no dispute about the rising pass-rate or the greater proportion of A-grades being awarded.

Professor Alan Smithers and his colleagues at Liverpool University have been analysing this year's A-level results.

He believes pupils have improved over the years - but that some now need more challenging questions.

"A lot of effort goes into trying to keep the standards constant from year to year, " he said

"It is simply that the candidates are doing better and better."

In 1965, when grades were first awarded, 10% of places were to be allocated for As and 20% for Es.

Professor Smithers, says the proportions have been more than reversed, particularly since the early 1980s.

The cap on the percentage of A grades was removed in 1982.

"Techniques have improved to the point that the situation is akin to the long jump pit having to be lengthened because competitors were in danger of jumping out of the end, or the javelin having to be modified as it was being thrown so far as to become a risk to spectators.

A grades by subject
maths 38.9%
classical studies 32.1%
German 31.2%
media studies 12.4%
computing 8.6%
vocational A-levels 6.2%
"There is a strong case for including some more difficult questions in A-levels to distinguish between the top performers so as to provide better information to universities and to make admissions to the leading institutions less of a lottery."

Some university admissions' tutors agree it can be difficult to distinguish between candidates who all have grade As, but who might still have very different abilities.

Bill Swaddling, the admissions tutor for Brasenose College, Oxford, told the Today programme: "The problem with the A-level is it no longer marks out the best candidates.

"Ten years ago 10% of grades were As, now it is 20%, which means A-levels are no longer telling us which are the top students."

One of the reasons given for the recent improvement in grades relates to the curriculum changes brought in under Curriculum 2000.

From then on, pupils opted to take four or five AS-levels for their first year of sixth-form or college.

In the second year, most take just three of their subjects on to A-level and drop the rest - probably those subjects they think they will do worst in.

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