Ever-easier A-Level exams creating ‘generation stupid’?

A Level results have been on a steady ascent over the last decade. Not a single year has passed without results increasingly improving, and pass rates have most recently peaked at a jaw-dropping 97%. With the high levels of stress we hear A Level burdened 17-year-olds bemoaning, it begs the question of what really is going on with A Level standards. Could it be that the younger generations have become progressively more intelligent and academic, with the current exam system lagging behind, unable to keep up with the times? Or, could it be what the common line of critique has stressed for years now – that A Levels have simply been dumbed down.

There has been an air of crisis in the Department of Education surrounding the issue of soaring A Level pass rates. Michael Gove, the Education Secretary (never one to shy away from offering critique) has expressed real scepticism over the content of modern-day A Level exams and has questioned the credibility of the qualification. A letter he wrote to OFQUAL revealed that he had called for “exam boards to…”take a step back” from dictating the content of A-levels and instead allow universities to set exam papers.” This comes after an enquiry in to exam papers which illustrated some startling findings about exam content. Exam papers in various subjects from the years 2001 and 2003 were compared to their 2008 and 2010 equivalents. The regulator noted that among the central findings are ‘dumbing down’ of exams in the form of watered-down questions, an increase in multiple choice questions as opposed to essay style questions and, arguably most shockingly, “OFQUAL found A-level chemistry papers from 2008 had more short-answer questions than in 2003… In one case, in a 2008 paper, a quarter of the total marks were related to GCSE-level questions.”

And there are only more statistics that render gloomy prospects. In 1997, the proportion of A Level students attaining grade A was at a modest 15.7%. Fast forward to the present day and that number has almost doubled, with over 26.5% of students now attaining grades A* and A. This so-called ‘grade inflation’ is precisely what is most alarming to the exams watchdog OFQUAL. Glenys Stacey, CEO at OFQUAL, recently voiced the unacceptability of justifying ‘grade inflation’ year on year. She emphasised in particular what this was doing to the credibility of respected qualifications such as the A Level, saying:  “If you look at the history, we have seen persistent grade inflation for these key qualifications for at least a decade. [It] is virtually impossible to justify and it has done more than anything to undermine confidence in the value of those qualifications.”

Click here to read the account of a Cambridge-educated school teacher who undertook an A Level English Literature course to uncover the truth about the qualification:


So why is nobody considering the possibility that British students may have gained in intellect over the years rather than assuming the more cynical view that exams are getting ‘easier’? Perhaps because there is evidence to suggest exactly this. Toby Young, co-founder of the West London Free School, says that not only have exam papers become simpler than ever but exam boards have loosened their standards and teachers have grown more and more dependent on a rehearsed model of ‘teaching-to-the-test’ – all of which has contributed to the boom in first-rate grades. Young states: “If you compare the performance of 15-year-old British schoolchildren to their counterparts in other developed countries when it comes to reading, science and maths, they’ve got worse, not better”. Apparently we are now trailing students in Estonia and Poland in core basic skills such as reading. As a leading power in the world, where does this place British education?

This problem is not just unique to A Levels. Many similar trends have been evident in GCSEs and there are grave concerns that a generation of mal-educated youngsters are graduating from an inept system. According to a report by the BBC, GCSE results have also been rising steadily over the last twenty years, again raising vital questions about the rigour of exams and the substance of these qualifications. OFQUAL has proposed some concrete reforms to rectify the on-going problems:

  • Limiting re-sits to just one per subject
  • Replacing modular exams with end of year exams
  • Increasing the involvement of leading universities in redrawing of exam content

Any changes will translate in to schools no sooner than 2014.

If you have any experiences or stories you’d like to share related to the debate over A Level and GCSE exams, please tell us by commenting below. We value your views and would be delighted to hear them.

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http://excelinkeysubjects.com/26a-levels-and-university-entrance-part-1/  (In this particular blog you get to see Esma speaking to me in a video associated with this particular blog. It was written a few years ago. Esma did obtain A and A* grades at A level and is now at LSE)