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Journey into the grade unknown

Susan Young reports on the background to the controversial Standards over Time investigation. Any report on the standards of public examinations was always likely to be potentially controversial, considering the way in which education has become a political battleground fought over by Left and Right.

Traditionalists, led by the Telegraph, Mail and Express newspapers, have been swift to condemn improving examination results at GCSE and A-level as evidence that standards must have slipped.

They have always been suspicious of the examination that took over from O-level and CSE and was intended to cater for a wider ability range. Their anger increased with the development of mass higher education which took numbers going to university from under 10 per cent of the age group to almost a third.

The problem faced by the Standards over Time committee is that it is hard to prove whether standards are rising or falling when the knowledge expected of candidates has changed. Exacerbating the difficulty is the incomplete nature of the evidence.

As George Turnbull of the Associated Examining Board explains, most exam boards have kept archives of their papers, although all may not cover 1975, the first year covered by the inquiry conducted by the Office of Standards in Education and the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.

Completed candidates' scripts are not easy to come by and marking schemes, if they existed, were often cruder than they are now. There has also been a shift away from norm-referencing of exams - where only a certain percentage will get particular grades - to criterion referencing, where each candidate is simply judged against ideal answers.

Moreover, content has changed. English O-level candidates were only assessed in reading and writing, whereas speaking and listening are also included in the GCSE equivalent.

Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, announcing the inquiry last summer, wanted to know if syllabuses and their assessment in a given subject were more or less demanding now than in previous years, and was the level of performance required to gain a particular grade the same?

The study covers English, mathematics, and chemistry. Specialists were commissioned to analyse syllabuses, papers and mark schemes from the four English exam boards for three or four specified years since 1975. Scripts were also to be analysed.

Unfortunately, no board could provide scripts from the 1970s, a few had some from the 1980s, and there was no pre-1990 coursework.

As a consequence, the draft report is understood to warn of insufficient evidence to draw firm conclusions about some grade standards dating back more than a decade at A-level or five years at GCSE. The problem with GCSE was that, although scripts were available, coursework was not.

In general, the committee has found that syllabuses are much more detailed than they were 20 years ago. Teachers and candidates can see far more clearly than before what is required. Papers contain questions which allow lower-achievers to demonstrate their knowledge. However, this reduces opportunities for brighter candidates to show higher-order abilities, such as multi-step problem- solving in maths.

The draft report is believed to reveal that English syllabuses have become more demanding since 1975 but there was insufficient evidence to decide if candidates' performances had changed. Available evidence seems to show standards needed to gain A and C grades had not changed. There was some evidence of variation in grade standards between syllabuses.

In maths, the committee apparently found the breadth of content in syllabuses had increased. There was now less emphasis on routine operations and more on understanding of processes. Less algebra was apparently required, with performance declining accordingly. However, the demands for data-handling skills had increased with candidates' performance improving.

Overall, the team is believed to have found standards were broadly comparable with some increase for most candidates. However, demands on and performance of the best students had dropped in some important areas.

Similarly, the breadth of chemistry GCSEO-level syllabuses had increased, with more application of knowledge and experimentation and less knowledge of chemical reactions. The impact of double-award science courses had led to less knowledge of basic concepts.

When she launched the study, Mrs Shephard stressed there was no evidence of any decline in standards and - referring to A-levels - no reason for major concern. "I believe, given the enormous amount of change since 1988, we can see steady and encouraging progress as demonstrated by the results. There is, however, no room for any kind of complacency."

Chief inspector Chris Woodhead had signalled his desire for an inquiry months earlier, telling MPs on the Commons education select committee that it would be one way of dealing with public fears about exam standards.

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