Exams haven’t got easier… just better… and so have the students!


In 2008, Durham University published some research that said A Level grades have got two grades easier over previous 20 years and recently Ofqual published http://ind.pn/IUs2nw which suggests the standard of examinations is going down.

People of my generation seem to revel in reciting the same mantra as if in some way it makes them more intelligent (actually more like the Fifth Yorkshireman). This is a typical lazy tabloid story when they can’t be bothered to seek out some basic facts. You can always rely on the utterly terrible Daily Mail to jump on any bandwagon and sure enough in July 2008 they ran the headline “The chemistry flops: Pupils baffled by O-level exams from the Sixties.” Laura Clark was the journalist who clearly wouldn’t pass the comprehension test in English Language because the text underneath expressed concerns from the Royal Society of Chemistry over the style of learning (particularly the rigour of problem-solving) rather than the ability of the pupils. And therein lies the first clue to the answer to the puzzle.

Courtesy Daily Mail Online

If indeed grades are going up then there could be a number of reasons for it. For example:

  • The exams may be better at testing children than they were – the way a question is worded can mean it is more a test of literacy rather than knowledge or memory rather than understanding
  • Children could indeed be cleverer than they were – but that’s absurd isn’t it?
  • The exam results are only part of the overall grade. Children need to do more to get a grade these days.

Taking that last point first: I was doing my O Levels in 1980, my A Levels in 1982 and a degree finishing in 1985. They are all a long time ago now and so the memory is fading. I do remember though that when I did my O Level French there were two tests – a short spoken French and a written examination. The current AQA GCSE French has 4 modules – two with exams and two assessments of course work. The story is true with A Levels – we had two years of study ending in written examinations. Now there are AS-Levels and A2-Levels as well as coursework. The sceptic in me would say that you need A Level Maths just to work out the marking schemes. The impact of this is that today’s youngsters need to be performing over a far longer period of time – no last minute cramming as in “the good old days”

I also think it’s true that the pompous exams of old are being replaced by much better “student-friendly” papers where it’s less about vocabulary in understanding the question and more about technique and knowledge in answering it. The RSC raised concerns about the lack of problem solving skills. I remember a similar debate when I was at school when calculators were introduced and then “open book” examinations. It may be that the exams of today are testing different things.

The final and stunning truth is that children today are indeed cleverer. The Flynn effect interprets the data which conclusively shows that IQ test scores are increasing over time. In his 1987 paper he provided data which indicated that in the UK IQ scores had sustained an increase of 0.19% per annum (compared to France’s 1%). On average, the Flynn effect says that IQ scores increase by 10 points per generation and that this is down to a range of factors such as access to technology, nutrition etc. For what it’s worth, as an observing and sympathetic parent, children these days have a  far more stressful life, work harder and have a far more social outlook on life.

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About justaukcook

/kʊk/ Not a chef, not an epicure, not a foodie. Just one who likes to prepare food – What really happens in the kitchen and on the high street is what I write about. Follow me on Twitter @Justaukcook and on https://www.facebook.com/justaukcook
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