Mike Baker discussed whether today's A-level and GCSE exams are fit for today's purposes.
As usual, we invited your comments - and received hundreds! Here is a selection from the range of views received:
I attend a typical sixth form. I have just completed my AS levels, achieving 3 A's and a B, as well as an A grade A2 Level in religious studies. I have worked extremely hard to achieve these grades, with countless nights of revision, in-depth reading and study which far surpasses the average 'necessary' to pass an A level. Nevertheless, with the less than adequate teaching in state schools compared to independent schools, I still found the A-level papers challenging. It's all very well schools like Eton and Harrow being elitist, and therefore belittling the achievements of underprivileged students who do achieve As, but what exactly are they doing to alleviate the chronic neglect of many state schools? Typically, absolutely nothing. It is utterly undermining, having come from a working class background, to be told 'your grades have been surpassed by people at a fee-paying institution' and, 'it was too easy anyway'. The minority at these privileged institutions, through such moves as withdrawing from A-level study, are undermining the A-level as a qualification. More importantly, it is time grown adults stopped belittling the achievements of youth. I challenge any journalist who claims A-levels are too easy to sit my papers!
Samuel Gibson, Dudley, United Kingdom
I have just done my GCSEs and I am fed up of people saying they are too easy. I worked really, really hard and achieved all As and A*s but I'm not as happy as I should be due to the media complaining about the exam board. There's complaints if too many people fail, there's complaints if too many people pass. We should be happy that more people are passing, it doesn't automatically mean that standards are dropping. Times are changing. It is easier for people to get to school and stay in school than it used to be. My parents used to work from the minute they finished school until bedtime to contribute to the household income. These days, children don't have to do that, so there is more time to study. With all the new technology, the internet in particular, things are a lot easier.
While I agree grades don't need to be directly comparable to previous years and things can change that does not mean more and more As and A*s is ok. The grades still need to be sufficiently meaningful to distinguish between candidates. Increasingly, at the higher end of the spectrum, the number of top grades given out means you cannot distinguish between quite good, very good and excellent. So ok, if a University previously required B, C, C and it now needs A, B, C then ok, what about areas where say A, A, B was needed (better universities and popular courses) where they now get predicted grades of As across the board for 10 times as many students as they have places. It is just a lottery.
Exams shouldn't be designed to make people feel they have no reason to continue to learn or merely make people feel like failures. Equally they shouldn't be designed to make everyone feel great by giving them a bunch of top level results they do not merit. An A should be something that requires intelligence and application and an achievement to be proud of. I'm afraid that is no longer the case.
In order to know where you are going, and why, it is imperative in life that you occasionally take note of where you have been. Otherwise you risk going around in circles, or aimlessly going nowhere. One of the more absurd obsessions of the British education system, apart from league tables and the obligatory use of impenetrable "educationspeak" and gobbledygook, is the harmful notion that students cannot be allowed to feel as if they have failed. Of course the easiest way to not fail is to not do anything. However, of all the faults with this well intentioned but barmy obsession, and there are many serious ones, the most egregious is that it provides an excuse for the education system not to provide appropriate or remedial instruction for those who need it. There is no incentive to provide remedial instruction when we have constructed a system in which it can be said everyone succeeds.
Peter Vintner, Treviso, Italy
Although it may be true that the focus of exams needs to/has changed to keep up with the modern technological era, it is a fact that exams are easier.
Look at A level maths. As the modules progress in number (i.e. C1, C2) they are meant to get harder. This generally means that the higher numbered modules taken for further maths should be harder than the early ones for a standard A level maths. If you look at some of the topics that are on the further maths specification and compare those to the early 90s you find that these topics used to be in much lower numbered modules. I never did further maths in those days but covered a lot of topics that pupils do now. When A level maths moved from the 4 module system to the 6 module system there was not a huge change in subject content. What we used to teach in the old M1 and M2 was now examined in M1, M2 and M3 so it made the specification for each module smaller and therefore easier to pass. Horrible topics were removed and often not replaced. The exams are easier albeit that they may still be fairly difficult. As a teacher I just find it irritating that every year the same discussion appears and everyone in the higher ends of education (and government) say that the standards are no different and I am yet to find a teacher in the last 10 years who agrees with them!
I'm the head teacher of a school in central London. The analysis of the examination system is the most sensible thing I've read this August !!
Richard Slade, London, England
You have fallen into the trap of believing unquestionably that exams reflect only the ability of the student. This is not the case. Exams are as much about parental support, private tuition, peer group pressure and school environment as the ability of the student. This is why middle class families so support A levels and GCSE's because they allow them to get one over other parents who are unable to pay for extra lessons or who haven't any experience of taking exams. And, this is why they bemoan a drop in standards because the poorer kids down the road are now achieving similar results.
John Prune, London, UK
The most valid point you make in your article is that institutions use results as a means of assessing the level of a candidate; this is what exam grades are for.
Extrapolating this point, if a higher percentage of candidates are reaching better grade due to easier exams, how are these candidates to be assessed when applying for a job/university? More extensive interview processes, more exams? Why not go for the easiest option and revert to making the national exams hard again.
The current exams are so obviously -not- doing what they need to do (apart from making the governments statistics look good). there are regularly stories in the media about how universities are finding it harder to differentiate between students during the intake process, and that they have to increasingly add foundation courses to bring students up to the required level to start with, as well as complaints from business that school leavers are missing the basic literacy and skills required.
Maybe if all those issues are fixed then people wont feel the need to criticise the exams so much.
I don't care whether exams are easy today than in the past or not. What annoys me is when I hear that today's students work harder for their grades than in the past. When I studied for 'A' levels I worked 12 hour days and at weekends, to achieve average grades. No time for socialising. Yet today I constantly hear 'We got better grades because 'we work harder'. Are these people saying that in the past students did not work hard?
Mark Walker, Germany