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Myth: Standards rise is just exams getting easier

Comment | Published in TES Newspaper on 13 November, 2009 | By: Adrian Elliott

Is the educational bar really being lowered?

Original paper headline: Myth: ‘The apparent rise in standards is just exams getting easier’

Continuing our series confronting enduring school myths, Adrian Elliott, a former headteacher and inspector, examines whether the educational bar is really being lowered.

The most common charge against modern schools is that standards have not risen and any supposed improvement has been due simply to examinations getting easier. Proponents of this view have gone to some lengths to prove their point.

Unfortunate 16-year-olds were whisked off to a mock 1950s grammar school by Channel 4 and given old O-level papers so their subsequent failure could be paraded before the nation. The Conservatives intend to publish exam papers back to Victorian days on its website, while comparisons of old and new papers appear regularly in the national press.

Yet such exercises have a number of flaws, which seem obvious - remarkably so - given the stress placed by those responsible on academic rigour. I am not referring to the sheer dishonesty of giving pupils four weeks’ preparation for exam papers for which the original candidates had two years, or the common practice of comparing the toughest questions from the past and the easiest ones from modern papers. No, much more significant - and fallacious - is the assumption that the standards of national cohorts of children can be judged entirely by exam questions.

Surely, two other factors are at least as significant: what proportion of these cohorts actually sat the exams? And how well did they cope? The answers, in the so-called golden age of the 1950s, were not very many and pretty badly.

Only the very brightest pupils sat O- or A-levels then - a fraction of the numbers who now sit public exams - and yet they failed in droves. Examiners were unimpressed by the efforts of this select group. Particularly striking is their concern about the large numbers who simply should never have been entered for the examinations, at both levels.

In 1957, an English literature O-level report concluded that “too many candidates … were unable to understand the question paper”, while a 1960 A-level maths report also complained that “many candidates clearly had no understanding of the subject matter of most questions”. A literature O- level report in 1956 noted that “whole groups are entered in which no more than a quarter have any chance of passing”.

Crucially, the examiners stressed these were not isolated instances. They were discussing, remember, England’s brightest youngsters. Yet if the top set in an average comprehensive school today were to be prepared for a 1950s O-level paper, would a quarter fail? And most modern top sets contain a wider range of ability than grammar schools in the past.

Furthermore, were papers in the past really as difficult as their selective use by national newspapers suggests? Dr Peter Knight, a university vice-chancellor, comments that a “great wodge of the material I did at A-level (maths) is no longer on the syllabus and rightly so: some of the material regarded as degree level in the 1960s is now on the A- level syllabus”.

English language O-level papers would appear laughable to its target group today, the brightest 20 per cent. Essay titles from the 1959 paper, which I sat, included “Pleasures of life in a large town”, “Washing day” and “Coach tours”. Candidates were asked to explain the meaning of “humility” and show the alternative meanings of words such as “vice” and “lap”. Is this truly beyond today’s brightest 16-year-olds?

Even if critics were correct and examinations had become easier, this would hardly “prove” that overall standards had dropped. One would need to determine by how much the standard had fallen in relation to the numbers taking the exam. If a GCSE grade C is really easier to obtain today than a pass at O-level in 1960, is it twice, three or four times as easy? A fourfold difference seems unlikely, implying a modern student achieving 80 per cent at GCSE, prepared properly for the O-level examination, would only get 20 per cent.

Yet the number of students achieving five or more GCSEs at grade C or above is now more than eight times the number getting five O-levels before the spread of comprehensive education. This increase cannot possibly be explained away by any “lowering” of the standard of the examination.

Detailed, subject-by-subject research by the Schools Curriculum and Assessment Authority and its successor, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), has not shown evidence of the wholesale slippage in standards assumed so readily by critics. Cambridge Assessment has looked at standards over time in both key stage 2 and key stage 4 English. It found that “the experimental evidence from all subjects and key stages indicated that there has been a substantial real improvement in children’s achievement”. Although they thought national tests had exaggerated the extent of the improvement (due to teaching to the test), there had still been “significant gains in achievement”.

Another comparison by Cambridge Assessment of GCSE English scripts of 2004 with those of 1993 and 1994, and with O-level scripts in 1980, indicated an overall improvement in standards. Spelling was better in 1980 than in either the 1990s or in 2004, but in all other respects - content, writing, vocabulary and punctuation - the scripts of 2004 were better than those of 1993 and 1994, and as good (if not better) than those of 1980, when far fewer pupils took the examination. Significantly, the improvements had taken place at all levels, not just among the brightest pupils.

Those who say there has been no real improvement in school standards also seem to happily ignore half the population. Can critics really deny that the educational levels achieved by girls have risen massively over the past 30 to 50 years? The reasons may lie partly beyond the school gates, but there is overwhelming evidence that girls have made enormous progress at every stage from pre-primary to higher education. Furthermore, international studies have demonstrated that one of the biggest determinants of a child’s success at school is the educational level attained by its mother, especially in higher secondary education.

The percentage of girls achieving A-levels rose almost 400 per cent from the cohort born in the 1940s to that of the 1960s, most the products of comprehensive education. Many of the latter now have children who have taken, or are approaching, GCSEs or A-levels. In the light of this, why is it so surprising that there has been an explosion both in the numbers taking public examinations and of those achieving higher grades? For all the allegations of deliberately lowered standards, the improvement was predictable and should surely be welcomed and built upon.

Adrian Elliott is the author of ‘State Schools Since the 1950s: the Good News’ (Trentham Books)

Next week “Competitive sports and setting are frowned on in state schools as elitist”

And the results are in…

  • In 1959, around 9 per cent of 16-year-olds got five or more O-levels. In 2009, the proportion gaining five or more GCSEs was 70 per cent.
  • Essay titles in the English O-level paper in 1959 included “Pleasures of life in a large town”, “Washing day” and “Coach tours”.
  • Essay titles in the 2009 OCR English GCSE included: “How do you present different images of yourself in different situations and why do you do so?”
  • A recent survey showed that most 55- to 65-year-olds lack the maths skills expected of a nine-year-old today.
  • An examiners’ report on O-level English literature in 1956 noted that “whole groups are entered in which no more than a quarter have any chance of passing”.

This year’s OCR examiners’ report on English GCSE stated that examiners were “very impressed with the overall quality of the entry in this session and there was general agreement that standards were higher than on any other occasion”. It added: “Many grizzled examiners found themselves astonished at the levels of emotional maturity and sophisticated understanding displayed by 15- and 16-year-old candidates in a 45-minute exam.”

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Comment (12)

  • This article really ought to be based upon an in-depth analysis of exam papers, in a range of different subjects. As it is, this article is just too vague and anecdotal. For example, many 55 to 65 year old will lack many of the skills expected of a nine-year-old today. If you have not read or spoken a word of French since scraping through your "O" level more than forty years ago, then maybe a nine-year-old may actually have a better knowledge of French than you do. That does not, in itself, prove that GCSE French is harder (or easier) than the old "O" level paper. Ditto the Maths paper.

    If my memory serves me corectly, "That'll Teach 'Em" was the title of the documentary in which a group of modern young people experienced what was like to be at a grammar school in the 1950s. Some of the youngsters who took part in the Channel 4 documentary said, quite openly, that they thought that the old "O" level papers were much more difficult and demanding than today's GCSEs. As this group of youngsters were able to make valid comparisons, having experienced both exams, I would have thought that their opinions were worth listening to.

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    13 November, 2009

    the hippo

  • So we're all first class graduates now. Employers, complaining about the dire lack of basic skills amongst would-be recruits, have merely raised their standards even higher and more quickly than GCSEs. The average teen on the street is actually an academic in disguise, the intellectual superior of those of us who scraped through on O Levels, and who had to work extremely hard to get A Levels. When pupils start bagging five degrees, all firsts, the penny may eventually drop. Until then, we can look forward to another record breaking year in 2010, and another in 2011. Yes.

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    15 November, 2009


  • Is this bloke being paid for stating the bleeding obvious? Any teacher knows that exams have been dumbed down since 1997. University entrance is a joke, they have just become cash cows not centres of excellence. Ken Baker heralded the way forward at the Tory Conference. Vocational education from 14 for those students who are not academic enough to be tomorrows captains of industry. A degree for all is a farcical approach for a country forced to employ artisans from eastern europe to maintain the housing stock and service our infrastructure. Get real Mr Balls..

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    16 November, 2009


  • The comments by Willowisp are not meant to be serious are they ? Which planet are you living on ?

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    16 November, 2009


  • "A fourfold difference seems unlikely, implying a modern student achieving 80 per cent at GCSE, prepared properly for the O-level examination, would only get 20 per cent. "
    I suggest the writer looks at the RSC's work - when they gave students questions from each decade they did find a consistent trend of lower marks for older questions. (And they were careful to select questions on content that is currently taught.) I don't think students have become less intelligent, but they are no longer prepared for more open ended questions.
    As for the English questions you quote - perhaps the older questions ("Wash Day") are actually harder because they are more open ended, whereas today's tend to give students some inkling of how to structure a response. It's also difficult to compare the difficulty of those without knowing how the answers were marked - for example did spelling 2 words wrong lose the same marks in both eras?
    "In 1959, around 9 per cent of 16-year-olds got five or more O-levels. In 2009, the proportion gaining five or more GCSEs was 70 per cent."
    I don't believe we've had a 7 times increase in intelligence, so surely this fact implies something else has changed. Probably what the exams are testing. If the exams are less about intelligence, and more about something teachable maybe........ which makes it hard to compare them.

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    17 November, 2009


  • I read with interest the debate on standards in Britain that echoes closely that in France. There is doubtless truth in all points of view. Clever well educated young people have not ceased to exist but the high standards announced, and the work ethic necessary to achieve them, are less obvious in the workplace than in the school environment.

    As an English, English , teacher in a lycée on the other side of the channel, I and my colleagues, are constantly struggling to meet the demands of a system where politically correct secondary education "adapts" its requirements to the standards of its pupils, while the brightest survivors of the system go on to the ultra-élite prépas and Grandes Ecoles.

    Much has been made of the high suicide rates at Renault and France Telecom, while some reports have suggested that it is a spécificité française, prevalent in the workplace generally. We might even conclude that we are in the presence of a new French paradox: a thirty-five hour week, ultra-protective labour laws, long holidays ... and a workforce that seems bent on suicide. But then in After the Lycée Land, French corporate life is pretty much an extension of the Grandes Ecoles. That is to say, elitist, hierarchical, demanding and efficient. Their employees generally benefit from excellent conditions of employment and in return they require results oui!

    At the end of the day, surely the issue is less about whether standards are dropping and more about whether our schoolchildren's education alows them to puruse their chosen career. Or is that too pragmatic even for British educationalists?

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    19 November, 2009


  • regarding exams/standards getting easier, there was some interesting research in the summer from Civitas which highlighted the reasons for the rise in the A-level maths results - basically the questions are not easier but the modular and resit aspect of the system makes it easier to get the necessary marks. this was supported by the vast majority of teachers who were interviewed. i remember having to recall 2 years of work to get my a-level - now it is possible to learn discrete skills and apply them in 6 modules, resitting if necessary. the better universities (for example, maths at imperial college) are onto this and refuse to accept resits.

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    23 November, 2009

    A Student

  • Choices - the RSC example you cite actually reinforces the comments in the original article. In the 1950s and 1960s there was a lot less Chemistry to be tested so the students were drilled for longer at mole calculations (the bit that the RSC focused on). The questions therefore were a bit harder - there was teaching to the test back then!

    However, it would be trivial to make a paper out of today's questions that a 1950s student would score no marks at all on (what is NMR? what is a fullerene? what is a membrane cell? etc...) What does that prove?

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    30 November, 2009


  • I'm always intrigued by this debate. I can see (from invigilating exams and talking to students) that standards have clearly changed - A level Biology seems to be the same as O level Biology that I did at school, and I could answer every question on the A level Physics paper I saw, not having looked at any Physics for 22 years.

    In my own subject, I see that A level Computing seems to be very similar to the O level in Computer Studies I took in 1985. More worryingly, though, I find that year 11 students struggle with the exercises I used to use with year 7 students earlier this decade. I think ICT might be a special case, though, because there has been widespread criticism of the new ICT qualifications being too easy.

    That said, just because we find the questions easier, it doesn't mean that the students do. Each year, students are prepared for the exams they will be taking, and so, I assume, that a student in 2010, prepared for a 2010 exam, won't necessarily find it any easier than I did, having been prepared for a 1985 exam in 1985.

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    7 December, 2009


  • Whether exams are easier or not, the quartiles for performance are heading upwards. We are increasingly striving to credit pupils' performance as much as possible, aren't we?

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    9 December, 2009


  • Sorry, to explain my last comment, I mean grade boundaries go up so it gets harder to fail an exam and each grade becomes proportionately easier to get.

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    9 December, 2009


  • May be the fact that when teaching vocational qualifications, I am under immense pressure to heavily mark (so it's more my work on the page than theirs) each piece of work up to eight times and eventually get students to pass (or higher), is one of the factors that skewers the statistics and makes it look like students are achieving more now. Vocational qualifications in general are a farce in their current form.

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    18 December, 2009


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