It is an important day for 18 year olds in the UK - it is the day
that 'A' level results are announced. For those going on to university
or other higher education these are the main exams that determine
where you go and what course you can take. For those leaving school
at 18 these are the results that may determine your employment prospects
for years to come. This is a bit like the role of SATs in the USA,
but are based on a small number of subjects studied (typically 3).
My own daughters are expecting results over the next few days, so it has a personal edge this year too.
Although the results for individual pupils are only being released today, the general statistics were announced to the press yesterday. Following a 19 year trend the 'A' level pass rate has increased again. Rather than a flood of congratulation for the class of 2002, instead there is the annual press frenzy about standards. "Exams are not what they used to be when we were young", the journalists, industry spokespeople, university professors say "then an 'A' level was an 'A' level, now everyone gets them ... even those people who live in public housing".
It is very hard to compare standards over time, and there is some evidence for this as it is certainly the case that there are topics that used to be taught at 'A' level and now have to be taught in the first year of a degree course. But the nature of the curriculum has also changed: more emphasis on the ability to process and use information not just remember it, more coursework and presentation of work. This is particularly evident in general IT competency. In Lancaster we have a first year course taught to those not taking computing as a major. Only a few years after its last major revision it requires radical overhaul, not because it has become dated, but, because the general IT ability is so much higher now, some of the material is unnecessary.
This also reminds me of when I was in the first year of my own degree course in Cambridge. I was in the Trinity College library one day and was looking back at old examination papers from the 1950s. When I looked back at the first year pure mathematics papers they included many topics that were not covered at all in the syllabus at that point. Now one reason for this would be that the base of pure mathematics from school was different - standards clearly slipping even then? However, it was also partly because these topics were considered less relevant - and the fact that they were not dealt with later in the course suggests that this was the main reason - and then suggests that the base knowledge required for them was also dropped for good reasons - so easy to jump to assumptions.
It was when I looked at the applied mathematics papers that I got the greatest shock, for the whole first year university examinations ... and note in Cambridge, the heart of mathematics in the UK ... the entire examination was on material that I had studied at 'A' level. Slipping standards?
In amongst all this talk of falling standards there is a mention of the number of grade As and 'grade inflation', but the principle focus is on the pass rate - as if the number of students you fail is an indication of the quality of the education system. Now I have dealt at length before on the failure-orientation in education ("abject failures", Sept. 2001), so I won't repeat, the arguments, but it is sobering to consider the implicit judgements that lie behind the headlines.
Looking a little deeper at the headline 'pass rate' figure there is another story.
The 'A' level examination system was overhauled 2 years ago. There used to be a single 'A' level exam per subject studied in the two years of 'sixth form' (around 16 to 18 years old). This was now substituted for two sets of exams: 'AS' levels after the first year and 'A2' exams in the second year which included marks from the relevant 'AS' level. the ideas is that students take more 'AS' levels (4 or 5) and then specialise in those that they are strongest in.
This is the first year that this system has worked its way into the final results and the first year of 'A2' exams. Students who were clearly weak in a subject at 'AS' level did not take the relevant 'A2' exam and the number of 'A' level exam entries therefore dropped. The 'leap' in the pass rate to 94% in fact corresponded to a reduction in the number of awarded 'A' levels - students were doing what they were supposed to do and dropping subjects they were likely to fail in.
The new system is achieving just what I advocated in my Sept. 2001 column - encouraging pupils to succeed in the things they are good at rather than teaching them to fail.
If only all of education were like that.