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Scrape off the gold veneer

Last summer's A-level chaos highlights the need to come clean about public exams, argues Roger Murphy

he controversy that followed the release of last summer'sA-level results will undoubtedly have a lasting effect on the perception of public examinations.

The A-level, since it was introduced in 1950, has been referred to as the "gold standard" within an education system that has not always maintained public confidence. Now even the "gold standard" has been shown to be not as rock-solid as many believed.

This week, new research published by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority looks specifically at public perceptions of exam standards over time.

The study, conducted by Mori and Nottingham University's centre for developing and evaluating lifelong learning, looked specifically at perceptions of exam standards, based on a study conducted before the 2002 results were released.

The research involved a national public opinion survey, some focus group discussion with teachers and 27 in-depth interviews with key stakeholders from awarding bodies, employers' organisations, teacher associations and universities.

The focus was on the question of whether exam grading standards were being maintained over time. The picture that emerged was, as one might expect, far from clear cut.

Among the public there were slightly more people who thought modern exams were setting a higher standard than their predecessors, compared with those who thought that they were getting easier. People from higher social groups (AB) were more likely to state that exam standards were falling.

In contrast, people in the 35 to 54 age group were more likely to see GCSE standards as higher than those they had to meet, and recent school-leavers (aged 15 to 24) were more likely to report that current standards were similar to those they had met.

Older people (55 and above) were divided equally between those who thought grading standards at 16 were higher (32 per cent) and those who thought they were lower (32 per cent).

Another interesting finding was the number of people who just did not know what they thought about standards over time, along with those who had little idea about how public exams are set, marked and graded. Even teachers and several of the key stakeholders had very little idea about how public exams operate - an issue which I feel contributed a great deal to the hiatus about A-level grading in 2002.

Exam grades and awarding processes need to command high levels of confidence to be credible. Our research has shown that such confidence is based upon a fairly thin level of information about how such exams operate.

If not much is known about how they are set, marked and graded, then it will not take much to shake public confidence in the results.

In the summer of 2002, high levels of trust were turned into high levels of uncertainty once a number of students, parents and teachers started to query their results. Adjustments of examiners' recommendations by awarding body chief executives quickly became seen as suspect interference, rather than the following of QCA procedures.

A high price is now being paid for allowing exams to be hidden behind a cloak of secrecy for so long. One major recommendation in the Mori report is that there is now an urgent need for steps to be taken to improve public understanding of the UK's examination processes.

Such a programme could usefully target opinion leaders, and the media, as they are in such a key position to inform, or misinform others. It must not, however, stop there, as there is a serious need for the public to be better informed about exams, their strengths and weaknesses, and the appropriate and inappropriate uses of results.

In a world where people like to rely on certainties, it is necessary to be frank about those aspects of life which cannot be summarised through a simple grading system. Public examinations still have a valuable role to play in our society, but it does not help to pretend that they are something that they are not.

Professor Roger Murphy is director of the centre for developing and evaluating lifelong learning, University of Nottingham

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