Blogs > Cliopatria > What a difference an A makes...

Aug 19, 2004 7:36 am

What a difference an A makes...

(Bad puns. Dontcha love 'em?)

Yes, it’s that time of year in the British education system (except Scotland, where they got Highers results a week ago). The eighteen-year-olds’A-level resultsare out (as usual, pictures of pretty girls hugging each other; presumably because the girls continue to do best, though apparently the boys are catching up. Unless it's because teenage boys are generally less photogenic...), and there are more passes (96 per cent of students get at least one) and A-grades (22.4 per cent) than ever; records have been broken for the fifteenth year in a row. Students in Wales have done particularly well, it would seem.

And so the usual, predictable and over-the-top controversy breaks out. A-levels have been dumbed down. No they haven’t. They’re still the ‘Gold Standard’ (a particularly fatuous piece of rhetoric). No they’re not. Both sides of the quarrel talk copious quantities of bullshit without worrying too much about little things like, well, evidence (even, say, comparing exam papers over periods of time, although the Guardian once looked at sample O-level/GCSE papers from 1951, 1977 and 2001, in English language and literature, history and maths. Interesting exercise). And naturally, all of this is done without real reference to any other countries' experiences or systems (despite the constant refrains that the A-level is falling behind/matching/surpassing international standards of excellence).

(I’m always rather amused by those who say: ‘go and ask the teachers, they’ll tell you how standards have fallen... or risen’. Because they rarely seem to follow their own advice; and when teachers do comment on this they seem to be as divided as everyone else.)

I don’t have the emotional attachment to the A level that seems to underlie much of this furore. I possess one A-level (a C in Economic and Social History), taken in night classes when I was thinking about returning to education. It was a trial run, no more; if I’d had more time to work at it I’d have no doubt got a better grade. Far more important to me is the diploma I got the following year at Coleg Harlech; it was that qualification that got me into university and I’d argue that I was better prepared by it than any of the 18 year olds with A-levels whom I met. OK, so I'm biased. But, frankly, this annual furore is completely out of proportion. It’s only another qualification. And for the majority of those taking it, it’s merely a stepping stone to the next stage in the system. It matters to them because their entry into university depends on their results, and because – as they and their teachers tell us every year – they have worked hard for it. Too much of the A-level lament does seem to disparage those efforts; no wonder teacher morale is low, you find yourself thinking. Which is not to say that there are no problems. We cannot go the other way and say that we mustn’t criticise the system because we risk hurting the feelings of teachers and students.

There are, I think, a number of reasons why the results have got better and better over the last fifteen years and why the label ‘dumbing-down’ will not do. It needs to be stressed, firstly, that during the 1980s (under a right-wing Tory government, don’t forget), the system for marking A-levels changed from ‘norm-referenced’ to ‘criterion-referenced’. In other words, students were now to be measured against identified standards of achievement rather than being ranked against each other with a set pass/fail rate (the latter had apparently been set at 30 per cent!). It’s no accident, surely (even if correlation does not automatically equal causation...), that the record-breaking run starts shortly after the change to criterion-referenced assessment. There’s an obvious, basic, point: since previously not only the pass/fail rate but also the proportions of different grades had been predetermined, this issue could never arise. You couldn’t beat the system (only other students).

However, a system of criterion-referencing (which, theoretically, makes a 100 per cent pass rate possible) means that, year by year, teachers and students can learn how to most effectively focus their efforts to improve, improve, improve those grades. They haven’t got cleverer, but they’ve without doubt got more canny. They’ve also got more and more resources to help them do it: study guides, computers, the internet. It all makes a difference. In fact, it would be more surprising if grades didn’t keep rising, especially as there are other social factors at work.

I’m talking about the big push to higher education; increasingly, middle-class students fear the consequences of ‘failure’, of not getting into the right university, and their parents probably spend plenty of time reminding them. (Seriously, they’re under a lot more pressure to perform, almost from the day they enter school, than my thirty-something generation ever was. Jeez, I used to do most of my homework surreptitiously during the lesson before I was due to hand it in. Assessed coursework? We'd never heard of it. And as for all that testing... poor little buggers.) And there’s a lot at stake for schools too, in this world of league tables and parental ‘choice’. The more historically-minded and thoughtful try to make themselves heard over the clamour every year: we cannot meaningfully compare results today with those of thirty (or even twenty, perhaps even ten) years ago. The syllabi have changed; methods of assessment are different, in ways that are simply incommensurate; the educational and social context has been transformed.

None of this lets the A-level off the hook. Its defence is frequently conducted in terms that are every bit as crass, ill-informed and poorly reasoned as the knee-jerk traditionalists’ criticisms. It goes: critics are merely reactionary defenders of the old elitist order; they want to deny opportunity based on merit; they denigrate all the efforts of students and teachers. There is a loathsome but common political tactic being used: tar all critics and calls for reform, however moderate, with the same extreme and ‘elitist’ brush. We may not ask: hang on, what is the value of a qualification when over 20 per cent of students get As and less than five per cent get Fs? (Shouldn’t it be roughly as difficult to get the top mark as the bottom one?) Or suggest that there might be a need to toughen up marking to redress that imbalance. Because that immediately means that you are lined up with those (probably mythical) people who would like to return to the time when only three per cent of teenagers took A-levels in the first place, and nearly a third were automatically failed. Of course it’s dishonest nonsense, but this is politics today.

So, actually, I’ll take the risk of being placed with the old fogies for a moment. I might not agree with the view of David Thomas (CE of the Careers Research Advisory Centre) that standards haven’t risen sufficiently to justify the rise in the pass mark; but I do agree with his point that the A grade now covers too wide a range of abilities. I’m wary of the Telegraph’s call for A grades to be rationed (by implication, for a return to norm-referenced assessment); but I do agree that A-levels are being discredited, and it certainly ought to be made harder to get an A. Most of all, there is a need for properly informed debate, for the standards to be more transparent, and almost certainly for some revision of marking criteria. (Of course, if we weren’t so emotionally attached to the damn things, we might be prepared to accept the proposals for them to be scrapped altogether: bring on the baccalaureate, I say, a view that means the fogies would never have me anyway.)

And this is in the students’ own interests: their achievements should be recognised, but this will not happen while we cannot properly evaluate what those achievements are. As educationalists point out, there are problems with criterion-referenced assessment - clearly exposed in the A-level controversy, of course: difficulties with setting out clearly what the standards are, what the criteria for those standards are, and sticking to them consistently in marking (although the problem of markers’ subjective judgments surely applies to any system of assessment).

A-level grades are becoming increasingly inadequate to universities trying to make decisions about admissions. Even David Miliband the schools lackey minister agrees about that, and there are proposals to provide universities with more detailed information to assist them in their decision-making - not simply overall grades, but a breakdown by individual modules in the course – changes that are actually likely to go ahead. And yet the most important reform that’s needed in this area – for universities to be able to base admission decisions on actual instead of predicted exam results – seems as far away as ever. But that’s another subject.

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More Comments:

Sharon Howard - 8/20/2004

Thank 'ee kindly, good zirr. (Does that joke West Country bumpkin accent work with an American reader? I presume there are American equivalents...)

I get more and more pissed off with the A-levels 'debate' every summer. Something is not quite right with these results, but it's so polarised (and out of proportion) that it's impossible to talk about any kind of reform. I don't think a 96% per cent pass rate and 22% A-grade rate serves the students particularly well, personally. First, they get all this flack undermining their hard work and that of their teachers; secondly, inflation sets in and you have to have higher and higher grades to be 'worth' anything anyway.

Jonathan Dresner - 8/19/2004

I had another blog, I'd post a link to this.

The tension between talking about standards and sounding like a reactionary is indeed difficult to negotiate, but when grades become more of a check-mark than an evaluative scale, it's time to have this discussion.

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