Home Tuition Photos Contact Me
GCSEs and A-Levels
There are too many top grades!
We need more failures! Well, not really. So what do I mean?
Increasingly, today, we use examinations to measure whether students have reached a certain level of competency. This is a useful function of examinations but not the only function. Efforts to ensure an ever increasing percentage of the population attain a set minimum level have exerted a downward pressure on standards at the high end of the scale.
Measuring ability levels is only one function of examinations; another, that has almost been forgotten, is discrimination. Yes, discrimination! We must discriminate in order to select the right people for the right jobs. I want to know that my local GP is competent, I want to know that the bridge I'm crossing will not collapse, I want to know that the Stock Market is working when I want to trade, I want to know that the air-traffic-control system is working when my plane is about to land.
Suppose, in a given examination, 25% of students achieve the top grade whereas only 22% achieved it last year. Many people, perhaps the majority, would see this as a cause for celebration and believe that we should strive for an even higher percentage next year. I claim that this attitude is entirely misdirected and can only result in a general lowering of standards in the long term. Yes, I believe the current trend towards higher grades in GCSEs and A-Levels is a very bad for our education system. It gives me no cause for comfort. For how are we to decide who gets places at our top universities and who does not when so many people have achieved the top grade. Continual increases in the numbers achieving the highest grades should not be a cause for celebration but a cause for concern, for where does it end?
The existence of the A* grade is symptomatic of the whole problem. It is a blatant sign that the standard required to achieve an A grade has fallen. Straight A's at A-level was once a strong indicator for a place at Oxbridge. But this achievement has lost much of its meaning and nowadays straight A's are so common that we see people turned away from Oxbridge, even though they have achieved the best results possible under the current system.
Awarding too many top grades lets our students down, for how are we to select the best and how are the best supposed to demonstrate that they are the best? Interviews are, and always will be, a notoriously inadequate method of selection.
So how can we achieve a genuine increase in standards and not just a paper increase? We apply the same philosophy that we apply to many others areas - we increase competition. And we do this by returning to a normed system i.e. we restrict the number of A grades awarded to, say, 10% of the total examination entrant, B grades to, say, 15%, and so on. This gives each grade more meaning. People would know that someone with an A grade was in the top 10%. Consider what an A grade means today. It means that its holder has exceeded a certain percentage mark. But what percentage? We don't know. And we certainly know nothing of the level of difficultly of the examination which, despite the best efforts of the examiners, will vary from year to year. So what do today's high grades really mean? Less and less, according to many employers and many in higher education.
The average ability level of a large group of students, in a certain fixed year group, is unlikely to vary much from year to year (by virtue of the population size). In a normed system the difficulty-level of the examination becomes almost irrelevant to a student's final grade (provided the level is kept within reasonable bounds) and students have an opportunity to demonstrate their relative abilities.
Of course, a normed system is not without its problems. For it to work well all examination boards must apply the same criteria (we could not have one board award 10% of its entrant grade A whilst another board awards 12% of its entrant grade A) otherwise there would be a tendency to enter pupils for the examinations in which they are most likely to gain the highest grades. Also, with fixed proportions for each grade, we will have to find new ways to measure any year-on-year changes in the performance of the general population. A normed system also risks demoralising some students.
However, the way we currently measure the standards of our students and schools (grade counting) in the long run undermines the system it sets out to measure. I claim that is what is happening right now. How long will it be before we see an A** grade introduced? Will Oxford and Cambridge be forced to re-introduce entrance examinations, now that they can no longer rely on A-level grades?
We are normalising standards (raising achievement at the low end and dragging it down at the high end) and many people are interpreting this change as an overall increase. But we will never achieve excellence this way. It is our able children and our country that are being let down.
As an after thought, I believe that however much we squander our young talent, science and society will inevitably progress, but advances will just take a little longer.
© Copyright 2003. All rights reserved.