Thursday, August 17, 2006

Are A-levels getting easier?

Well let's just say that when nearly a third of Northern Irish students can receive an A-grade in the things, with a UK-wide average of a quarter getting As, the thing starts to look a tad suspect. Being in the top 33 or 25 per cent does not, in my books, mean you have excelled, which is what I always thought an A-grade was supposed to indicate.

Personally I have no doubt whatsoever that the A-levels my partents took were significantly harder than the ones I did, because they kept their exam papers and I was able to compare them at the time. If you've made the mistake of speaking to a recent school-leaver with lots of A-grades, you'll also be hard-pressed to understand just how they managed it with such a woeful lack of knowledge and understanding of pretty much anything.

Now, however, Matt T has produced a handy chart to help you work out what grades you'd have got had you sat the exams with today's young whippersnappers. Hurrah! Does this mean I can change my CV?


Anonymous Paul Davies said...

Results always normally distributed. People at top decide how many to get each grade (preferably 0.4-0.6% more than year before). Carve up curve accordingly.

Teachers know it, exam boards know it, govt knows it, media knows it.

Not nearly so newsworthy though.

Not that I can really complain - I've never had as much free time as when I was doing my A levels...

8/17/2006 03:03:00 pm  
Anonymous willhowells said...

I remember my A-levels maths teacher telling us that we wouldn't be doing certain subjects that had been taught the year before because it was now considered too hard for A-level.

8/17/2006 03:37:00 pm  
Blogger Rob Jubb said...

I think, although I've no way of proving it, that much of what is described as grade inflation is down to having modular exams which allow students to retake papers until they get a satisfactory grade (and to take the papers when they're actually studying the topic, which is not totally bizarre). I think you should be expected to say how many times you sat an exam until you got the grade you eventually come out with, since you'd imagine that someone who got an A first time round is probably better than someone who got it after the third or fourth try.

8/17/2006 03:55:00 pm  
Anonymous Jawbox said...

"Are A-levels getting easier?" Well, as someone who just got my AS-level results back today, I would say this:

No, they're bloody well not, and I am sick of being told that they are. They are very, very hard. Astonishingly hard. Tortuous. Students suffer nervous breakdown when preparing for them. They are not as proscriptive as GCSEs, to be sure, but they demand a much more in-depth grasp of your subject, and can be wildly unpredictable (as I found out on my modern history paper). I got 3 As today, and the next person who implies that they had to work much harder for their grades than I did for mine...aaarrghhh.

8/17/2006 04:09:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Jawbox - just wait until you get to university... The step-up from GCSEs to A-levels when I did the buggers was a bit of a jump, and certainly required a lot more work, but the step-up from A-levels to undergrad was huge. (The leap from undergrad to postgrad, however, made all before it pale utterly in comparison...)

The problem I have, though, is precisely that this current situation demeans the hard work you youngsters have been doing. Having just slogged your arse off for two years and gone through the toughest set of exams you've yet had to face, only to be told that they're a piece of piss, is bound to be violently annoying.

But when you get between a quarter and a third of all people getting the top grade, that questions are asked is only to be expected. At the very least the grading system needs to be revised to give more meaning to the good results - because an A grade means a hell of a lot more when you know that only 5% of your fellows got one than when 25% have.

Amongst the 25% who have received A grades today, surely for those who neared 100% to be lumped in with those who just scraped it is hardly fair. It also makes it impossible for universities or employers to work out who might be the best candidate for a place/job.

It's not a question of slagging off A-level students' achievements so much as wanting to ensure that it is possible to identify the best people for future jobs and the like - and if you don't want to work out people's abilities, why bother with exams at all?

Sounds like they went well, at any rate, so congrats and stuff. Now go out and get royally pissed like you should be.

8/17/2006 04:34:00 pm  
Blogger Jonn Elledge said...

It is a bit harsh on the kids, particularly since several thousand of them will presumably have just discovered they're not now going to Footlights College Oxbridge as they expected they would and are consequently a little bit upset. (I ranted about this at some length at my place.)

But... universities are complaining about remedial teaching and not being able to tell who has the ability, business isn't getting the skills they say they need... Hate to say it, but the system probably should be reformed, to deal with this issues and to shut up all those columnists who will keep going on about it.

8/17/2006 11:56:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Proscription - prohibition: a decree that prohibits something

Prescription - directions prescribed beforehand; the action of prescribing authoritative rules or directions

(Definitions from Princeton University website)

When I did "A" levels we were expected to know the difference.

8/18/2006 11:31:00 am  
Anonymous Paul Davies said...

Not getting easier. Of course not.

The main problem, as Clive rightly concentrates on, is that too many of the mediocre are lumped in with their intellectual superiors. The distribution of intelligence (in as much as such a thing can ever be measured through mass education) will always remain roughly normal. Thus when the results are increasingly negatively-skewed, it means that someone's been messing with them.

It wasn't all that long ago that I took my jokes of examinations. They were fun, in that I enjoyed the free time provided (learning on the first day that 40% of people that did economics at my 6th form would get As, and that only one person in said 6th form's history who took further maths had failed to get an A in single maths was the clearest possible signal that classroom attendance was largely unnecessary) but... I shouldn't have been able to get away with such behaviour, in the same way that I shouldn't have been able to get an A* in my stats GCSE despite leaving after 20 minutes of a 2 1/2 hour exam.

My dad's old O level papers contained stuff that is now not touched on until university.

This is probably less because the kids are inherently dumber but more because we've decided it's much easier to give everyone prizes than actually teach more to be worth something.

8/18/2006 01:01:00 pm  
Anonymous -ronnie in new orleans- said...

Dunno how you calculate "A level" in Britain but we have a similar problem of grade inflation in the States. When I returned to college after a break of over 20 years my old "college board" scores were recalculated on a scale that corrected for the difference in testing years ago. My grading on the exams raised from 14 to over 20%.

I suspect that the fear of branding anybody a failure from grammar school on contributes to this. At present my son is in his senior year of college and has a 4.0 average. This is not terribly unusual anymosre. When I went to college it was damned near impossible.

Guess I'm just a bitter old man.

8/19/2006 04:04:00 am  
Blogger Matt said...

Of course, some of us have to factor in that we got 'two E' offers from UCL, eh Clive?

Over the last five years of teaching at a university, I generally found that the academic standards of first-years was pretty much constant. All were extremely bright, but equally all had to learn the basics of intellectual inquiry: how to study texts, how to order one's thoughts, how to argue in public, and how to structure an essay.

So exactly the same as we did back in 1997. God, we're getting old. Possibly that's the reason we're bothering about A-levels. I look forward to articles about the terrible state of popular music today.

8/19/2006 08:57:00 am  
Blogger Jonn Elledge said...

Well, it's just noise, isn't it? Why can't they listen to something with a tune.

Like the Prodigy.

8/19/2006 01:44:00 pm  
Blogger Andrew John said...

I can't speak of subjects I know little or nothing of, but I do detect - and see much more criticism of than in the past - a distinct downward trend in decent grammar. I was pleasantly surprised that Jawbox (several comments above this one), a young person, I assume, used excellent grammar (sorry if that sounds patronising - not meant to be). He/she is an exception. I was reading an email from a PhD the other day, and it wasn't written in, for want of a better term, Net style or email style (deliberate noncapping of words that should be capped, for instance, for the sake of speed; deliberate misspellings, again for speed), but was more formally written - indeed, written as if it were a letter for sending through the post. It was riddled with basic grammatical errors. I'm not talking here of split infinitives or sentences ending in prepositions, or other minor things that get up the pedants' noses, but errors that can change the intended meaning.

But, then, you can't blame people when the organisation that ought to use decent grammar - the posher parts of the BBC, such as Radio 4 - is guilty of sense-distorting grammar errors all the time. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard university-educated presenters such as Ed Stourton say 'try and', 'he's one of those people who is ...' and 'neither Mr Smith nor Ms Bloggs are ...'

I feel sorry for people learning English who feel that Beeb-speak is to be emulated, only to find (if ever they do) that it is anything but.

8/20/2006 02:30:00 pm  
Anonymous Sam said...

paul davies (1st comment) is wrong, this was stopped in the eighties.
To get an A you need 80%, which is 480 out of 600 in the unified mark scheme.
There are six modules in each A level, and usually an exam for each module (there may be a coursework or part exam part coursework module in some subjects).

You will take 3 of these modules at the end of the first year(AS), and the other 3 at the end of the second year, depending on the policy of the school/college some of these may be taken in January instead of June, further spreading out the exam load, and thus reducing pressure on each individual exam.

Also since there are more exams for each subject, so more of the syllabus is covered in the exam, so to get a good grade you have to know nearly all of the syllabus, conversely this makes it easier to revise, because each exam will cover only a one sixth of the total course.

This, along with the fact that most schools don't enter people they think will fail (something to do with league tables) and are becoming increasingly able to spot the failures because of the modular exams easily explains the rising pass rate.

As for the 24.1%, that is 24.1% percent of entries that got an A, not 24.1% of people, so getting an A does not mean you are in the top 24.1%. Obviously some of those are General Studies, which everyone knows is not a real A level, but is still compulsory in many schools.

And as clever people (especially if you go to a public school) take more A levels than poor, much less clever people who go to inner city state schools (like me), that 24.1% is obviously biased.
One student got 10 A's this year.

Take Humphrey Double-Barrelled and Micheal(sic) Chav for example, Humphrey goes to a private school, studies every night and gets six A grades. Micheal goes binge drinking on the weekends, studies only when he feels like and only enters for two A levels because he's lazy and would fail if he did a hard subject like physics or maths. Micheal gets two D's.

Consider the statistics for this scenario, 75% of entries recieved A grades, yet only 50% of students received at least one A grade.

The discrepancy is caused by the eagerness of the MSM to report only one statistic, more entries received A grades, but the actual number of candidates who received A grades might have fallen, we aren't told.

Last year I did AS level Critical Thinking (don't laugh, its actually a serious subject, if not the hardest) and I managted to get a copy of the previous years exam report, only 5% got an A grade, this figure will be higher for the full A level (those who fail AS don't carry on to the A2). Say 10-11% get A grades and extrapolate to all A levels.

Therefore I think it is quite reasonable to assume that 12%(probs less) of candidates get an A grade, and if you get 3 A grades or better then you are almost definitely in the top 5% of the population.

Now, nosemonkey, put that in your original article
"Being in the top 12 or 5 per cent does not, in my books, mean you have excelled, which is what I always thought an A-grade was supposed to indicate."

Not such a convincing statement.

Class dismissed. You are now free to congratulate me on my four A grades (In Biology, Chemistry, Physics and Maths).

8/21/2006 12:19:00 am  
Anonymous Paul Davies said...

If it was stopped in the eighties, than it seems a little odd that it was explained to me by a maths marking man in 1999...

8/21/2006 11:21:00 am  
Anonymous Tim Almond said...

It's a lovely bit of government manipulation. Make the standards easier, and then try and silence critics with a bit of "it's a bit hard hearted for you critics to beat up on hard working kids who worked so hard".

I don't believe for a second that there are more highly motivated kids than 20 years ago or that teachers are better than 20 years ago.

8/24/2006 06:56:00 pm  

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