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Complaints of slipping standards span the generations

CLAIMS THAT A-level standards are slipping are nothing new, the former head of an exam board showed this week after unearthing examiners' reports from the 1950s criticising candidates for poor grammar.

A 1954 report in The TES on an English literature A-level paper said: "All eight examiners, independently, reported that a very high proportion (of candidates) presented the fruits of their study of acknowledged English classics in a written form that was, to some serious degree, illiterate. The widespread ignorance or indifference about the most elementary points of reputable English usage was distressing."

A 1952 report on an O-level English language paper said: "The abuse of punctuation suggests that most candidates are ignorant of its function in determining structure and meaning, or are unimpressed by its importance."

Kathleen Tattersall, former director general of the AQA board and now chair of the Institute of Educational Assessors, is publicising the reports.

She said that today's A-levels make greater demands on students than ever before, testing a broader range of skills than in the past and using more sophisticated assessment techniques.

However, complaints continue about students arriving at universities without having mastered subjects, often despite high grades.

Some 60 per cent of UK universities now offer extra maths support for new undergraduates on courses such as economics, engineering or the sciences, says Duncan Lawson, principal lecturer of maths at Coventry University. In 2001, the figure was around 45 per cent.

Professor Lawson said the increase had come about partly because universities were becoming keener to ensure that gaps in pupils' knowledge were filled and partly because the gaps may be getting bigger.

Coventry has set the same test to its incoming maths undergraduates for 16 years. Professor Lawson found that those taking it in 2001 with a grade B in maths A-level did worse than those who failed the A-level in 1991.

Dr Bernard Lamb, a genetics tutor at Imperial College, London, was so appalled at his students' bad spelling and grammar that he is to make their errors public, it was reported last weekend.

Dr Lamb kept a record of errors which ran to 24 sides of A4 paper in just over a term. They included students using "herd" instead of "heard" and insemination of cows with "seamen".

Some teachers, it seems, also question whether improvements in results reflect true gains in students' understanding.

Lucy Wenham, a maths teacher about to move to Uxbridge high school in west London, said: "There is no way of comparing standards from one year to the other, because the exams have to change from year to year. The whole debate is a nonsense."

On the TES online staffroom, 21 responses to a debate on standdards said exams were getting easier.

Others disagreed. One said: "I can only speak for my own subject (history), but I remember my own A-level (sat in 1976) as being nothing more than a brute test of factual knowledge."

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