Thursday, August 17, 2006

The day of reckoning

Well, congratulations to my students for getting a really good crop of results. I am delighted and relieved that the grades you got largely reflected your skills and efforts and I am very happy for you all. Not just those of you who got A's but you guys and girls who arrived with borderline GCSE grades and who worked your socks off for two years to turn that into E's, D's and C's. While doing part-time jobs, looking after siblings, and in many cases fulfilling your responsibilities to your family business or even looking after sick parents. You're great. Some of you are amazing young men and women and I am very impressed with you.

[sarcasm] Due to the phenomenon of grade deflation, you of course need realise that your grades are worth fractionally less than they would have done if you had sat the exam last year. As the overall pass rate went up by 1.3%, obviously any exam was 1.3% easier than it was last year. Just remember that. If you are tempted to forget it, just listen to the news. [/sarcasm]

The A-levels taken today are not the same as the exams I took as an 18 year old. We have completely changed and re-defined A-levels and you cannot compare like with like. But why does this translate into such depressingly predictable bitterness? And why are there not more intelligent analyses of the facts?

My A-levels (in 1988) were done over two years with no exams until the last term of the upper sixth. I think I did two papers for each subject plus practicals. A modern A-level is done over two years and each consists of six papers, the first of which will often be sat at the end of the first term. Any of the papers can be re-taken as many times as necessary. In the first year, most students now sit four subjects in the time they would traditionally have taken three so obviously there must be less content included. It's not the same. Please get over it.

The critics seem to divide into different groups... there are the ones who lament the day when 'an A-grade meant something', who seem to resent the fact that the achievements of their children are not as exclusive as they want them to be. Hum. Well, maybe if the A grade was harder to get, your children would have got B's and C's. Maybe you could console yourself by correcting your child whenever s/he claims to have got four A grades.

Then there are the ones who lament the continual rise of standards, witnessed by the statistics. We can't deny the numbers. Perhaps they should look a bit deeper into the whole phenomenon of the statistical engine that drives modern education. Schools and colleges are forced to focus more and more on the headline statistics produced and so most of the effort in an institution revolves around improving these numbers (including the pass rates and the 'higher grade' rates.) Exam preparation, choice of exam boards, timing of modules, teaching methodology, advice to students on subject choices - all are influenced by the need to work the numbers. So the year-on-year rise in numbers is no surprise. It seems the pass rate is stabilising, as exhausted teachers finally reach a point where they have done everything they can in the service of the numbers and it is solely down to whether the pupils step up and do the work or not.

Finally, there are the complaints from universities that they cannot differentiate between the best students. Here I am very sympathetic. One factor there is that most universities can no longer afford to interview candidates, which is not mentioned but certainly closes off a whole way of assessing students' suitability, passion, commitment, thinking skills and depth of knowledge. Something should be done - certainly, universities should see module results and the number of times students have re-sat a paper. The greater use of additional entrance exams is also a possibility - or maybe universities should actually be allowed to read scripts. I write this with a heavy heart, because this will inevitably translate into more work for me. It won't be long before the machine finds a way of measuring this, another statistic which I will need to address ('Hum, your A grade rate is stable, but the number of students getting into top universities from your subject area is still low. What are you going to do about it?')

Anyway, I'm off to college now to see my students. I am hugely proud of them and they deserve a day of rejoicing.

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