A few thoughts on exam results and ‘standards’

examSo it’s time again for the traditional media storm that follows the inevitable yearly rise in GCSE results.  How should we respond to the so-called ‘grade inflation’ that see a majority of students achieving above what is traditionally average?  The usual arguments fall into several familiar camps:

Exams are easier

The classic argument follows that courses and examinations must be getting easier.  It is usually supported by helpfully ignorant comments like “some of what my child is learning at A-Level was in my O-Levels”.  We should apparently assume that children learn everything modern, including all of the technological skills needed to obtain employment in today’s working world, alongside the already jam-packed curriculum of previous decades.

Teaching has improved

Or, more likely, teachers have got rather more efficient at preparing students for assessment.  Years of pressure has led to an approach that focuses primarily on what will achieve grades and very little on what will spark interest or prepare for life in the real world.  This is a favourite of teaching unions and anyone else vaguely sympathetic towards the education system.

Kids work harder

A sister argument of the above, something observed more at Post-16 where students are apparently aware of an increasingly competitive market for university places.  A teenager stared at me with incredulity when I told him that less than a decade ago you could get into high-flying redbrick universities with grades BCC at A-Level.  You would be fortunate to get onto a worthwhile course at one of the former polytechnics with those grades just a few years on, and students know that without four A grades they will not get the place they want.

Of course, none of the above arguments are close to adequate.  A colleague of mine suggested to me that exams perform the same role they always did; they provide a gateway to progression at Post-16 and university.  Yes, grades may have ‘inflated’, but they still rank students, with the brightest and hardest working still at the top.

This view feels more tolerable to me.  Yes, I may have to swallow my pride and accept that the grades I achieved only a relatively short time ago don’t equate to the grades achieved now, but this is a product of incessant government targets in order that statistics may be produced to show how well our taxes have been spent.  Such a trend will not be reversed and it is surely only a matter of time until the introduction of a faintly ludicrous A** grade.  You know, for the very brightest.  Because parents, politicians and education managers will not accept a downturn in results any more than banks and homeowners will allow a 100% drop in house prices (common sense says both would be needed for a return to sensible levels).

In the meantime, perhaps it would be possible to show a little more restraint all round.  I’m looking at you, callers to Radio 5 Live.  Your tedious annual repetition of inaccurate generalisations does nothing to move the discussion forward.  The problem is far more involved than you give credit, and your complaining is the fuel that fires the witless ‘traditional values’ promises of our politicians.

Oh, and well done to all who achieved what they wanted this year.  Even those of you who put my grades to shame.


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