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It's economics, stupid

Unfairly harsh grading is being blamed for the huge drop in students taking a once-popular subject. Susannah Kirkman reports on a statistical nightmare

Urgent action is needed to stem the dramatic decline in the popularity of A-level economics, according to researchers at the University of Durham.

A study of more than 1,000 A-level students indicates that the marked slump in the popularity of economics - the number of A-level candidates fell by 50 per cent during the 1990s - could be caused by the relatively severe grading of students who are halfway through their courses.

If economics teachers do not want to make themselves redundant, they must bring their marking system into line with that of other subjects, the reearch concludes. More than 40 per cent of the economics students in the survey said that economics was their least favourite A-level subject.

The study's authors, John Ashworth and Lynne Evans, suggest that these negative feelings are inspired by the low grades awarded by teachers. Students scored half a grade lower in economics than in their other A-level subects at the end of Year 12.

Economics students are under-performing against the standard despite their relatively high ability, the study adds. Those surveyed by the Durham University researchers were just as able as their fellow historians, who were awarded much higher grades.

The study warns that teachers are scaring off potential candidates by underestimating students' performance. The fear of low grades acts as a powerful deterrent, particularly as economics is not part of the national curriculum, or a required subject for university entry.

Although economics students are less severely graded in Year 13, in future this comfort will come too late for AS-level students who have decided to give up the subject at the end of Year 12.

"If the grades from AS-level exams are a way of securing an offer of a university place, the message not to study economics will grow," the Durham researchers say.

"Economists are grading students away from the subject," by John Ashworth and Lynne Evans, is published in the latest issue of Educational Studies (Vol 26 No4 2000)

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