Thursday, August 14, 2008

A-level results

Yes its that time again when the media raises its collective head and starts whining about how these exams are obviously easy then they used to be given the number of high marks.

Yep more students have passed with more getting an A-grade, so why is this? Well we have two real options:

  1. Students are more intelligent, or
  2. Exams are getting easier.
Option 1 would be a nice conceit, after all we know that those who measure IQ have to renormalise the results every so often and the trend is upwards. Except this seems to contradict stories coming from universities that their intake don't know the basics, can't spell etc. (Not an indication of lack of intelligence though)

Onto option 2 which can be broken down as follows:
  1. Exams are getting easier
    1. The questions are easier, or
    2. The marking is more lenient, or
    3. The students are picking 'easier' subjects, or
    4. The teaching is tailored only towards passing the exam.
Option 2.1 can be discounted if you consider that previous exam papers are used as practice and reference items for the current exam. As such it would be noticeable if the questions were being 'dumbed down' as their value would be diminished.

Option 2.2 is supported by various stories floating around such as students being awarded marks simply for providing an answer regardless of its relevance to the question. However this may only be one-off situations.

Option 2.3 requires a definition of 'easier' subjects, consensus seems to be those that require subjective analysis for an art exam 'Is this painting good?', for dance or media 'Do they perform well?'. Although such subjects will also have an objective component it appears the subjective section holds a fair proportion of the mark when compared to 'harder' subjects that rely on objective results 'Calculate this!" in a mathematics exam for instance can have only one correct answer (although marks are given for logical calculation even if an error is made). Using that definition the reports suggest that the 'harder' subjects are being dropped in favour of 'easier' ones.

Option 2.4 becomes an obvious result when it is considered that funding and performance are all rated on the basis of exam results. As with any competitive situation those that concentrate solely and repetitively on improving that which is being measured are likely to do better in such tests than those who opt for a more rounded method.

My opinion is that it may well be that this generation of exam takers are smarter then previous ones, but this will remain unknown due to lenient marking, an increase in subjects with subjective examination, and teaching to the test.

Time to suggest ways to counter this. First off examiners are made to mark previously assessed exams, if the new assessment is a certain percentage out from the previous assessment the examiner is dismissed or re-trained.

Subjective examination can't be removed for obvious reasons, it is also difficult to suggest that students be forced to take at least one 'hard' subject thus sapping their time and energy in doing something they may have no aptitude for.

For teaching to the test the simplistic option would be to remove using these exams as performance targets, however we still require some method of evaluating the worth of both school and/or teacher. Perhaps a once-removed approach whereby schools are assessed by the results of their pupils at university. This would necessitate the reinstatement of government paid tuition fees to remove wealth bias, but would highlight those schools sending their students off with only rote knowledge.

Ah well those are my thoughts, feel free to suggest others or pick mine apart.


Don B said...

The thought occurs to me that teachers are berated if there is not an improvement in SATs, GCSE or A level results. Teachers and pupils get more skilled at achieving the better results and the press and old fogies (not like me!!) say and write the exams are getting easier. Pupils and teachers can't win can they?

FlipC said...

Ah yes the 'improvement' challenge too. It's not good enough just to produce well-educated children, each year you have to produce even better well-educated children.

You're right in the no-win situation, hence my indirect measurement suggestion the only incentive would be to prepare the student for the next stage of education which would be out of their hands.

It does sound a little unfair, but I think it would reflect a truer measure of education.

Ah apocryphal story time - Once upon a time there was a factory who made widgets. Sadly the inspection machine at the end of the line would reject 1 in 10 of every widget produced as not up to scratch.

The Big Boss was very unhappy about this and threatened the factory with closure unless they could get the failure rate down to 5 in 100. However the Big Boss would not provide any extra funding to replace the ageing equipment that lay at the heart of the problem. What to do? What to do?

Time passed and the Big Boss made another inspection and read the report that failure rates were down to 4 in 100 and away he went happy that his proactive management had solved the problem.

But how did the factory improve on the widget making to lower the failure rate without spending any money? Simple they lowered the quality standards used by the inspection machine at the end of the line.

Dan H said...

I'm afraid I have to go with option B1. I remember when I did my A-levels, and even the questions from five years beforehand were noticeably harder than the ones from that year. Every year, hard topics have been removed from syllabi and replaced with fluffy ones. AS-level has reduced the amount of content in courses, because pupils effectively only have four terms to learn the material rather than five.

Worse yet, the science subjects are getting dumbed-down to encourage people to take them. My year was the first to do AS-level physics without any calculus, which was done to encourage biologists (who are traditionally poor at maths) to take it as a second science subject.

On the other hand, the increasing pressure on pupils who might have left at 16 to take A-levels, and on pupils who would have taken n A-levels to take n+1 AS-levels; the increasing volume and stringency of coursework; and the desire of Oxbridge applicants to do extracurricular activities that will look good on their UCAS forms; all these factors counterpoint the falling difficulty of the exams themselves by making the overall process of doing A-levels much harder.

So, arguably, though we're teaching pupils less academic matter less well, we're better teaching them how to game the system, how to get by in a number-driven organisation that doesn't care for their welfare, and how to pad their coursework out: all transferable skills much more relevant to the life of an office worker.

FlipC said...

That's a fair point Dan. My thoughts were based on the presumption that presenting students with much harder exams as 'tests' would have them excreting bricks, which would hardly be the state of mind you want them to be in.

I'm not even going to go into the mess that is the AS-level. My own pure A-level years are a bit of a blur and the fact I took Applied Math with Physics makes it difficult for me to separate the two strands.

You're right in the extracurricular stuff, but I have to ask how much is that a result of the lack of trust in grades?

I had to laugh at your last paragraph as you describe learning to game the system 'Yeah', I thought. 'We're producing students who'll fit nicely into the standard work niche'.

Orphi said...

It's all so wonderful. Every year, results will either go up, or go down. There is no other possibility.

If results go up, everybody screams that the exams are getting too easy. If they go down, everybody cries that students are getting too stupid.

It seems no matter what happens, these poor beleaguered souls who have just worked their tails off getting their results are going to have those same results passed off as “well yeah, but the exams are really easy these days anyway”.

I find that rather sad…

PS. I don't have any A-levels at all. I hold only a mere 3 GCSEs, and it was a massive struggle to even get those. I cannot begin to imagine how the hell anybody gets 16 GCSEs and then does 14 A-levels…

FlipC said...

"Every year, results will either go up, or go down. There is no other possibility." or they can stay the same if adjusted ;-)

You're right about the beleaguered souls, it's so amusing to watch the news reports start to slag off the percentages of results start with a "Not to take any credit from the hard work the students have done".

Mentioning GCSEs the local news were crowing over two girls who got 13½ A* grades... how do you get half a grade?

Dan H said...

There isn't really a staying the same case. If the change between years were negligible it wouldn't stop the media puffing up the statistics to make it look like more. If you did adjust the results so that the fraction getting each grade was exactly the same every year then they'd start complaining that exams from different years aren't comparable in terms of pupil ability.

As for half a grade, there are "short course" GCSEs now, which are worth half as much as a full GCSE. Religious Studies is the most popular one, but most of the modern languages have short-course variants as well.