Standards: a debate without end

AUGUST again. The exam results come out and the annual standards debate begins. Is the A-level standard still golden? Are students doing too well? Are too many struggling?

This debate is always likely to be inconclusive. Judgments about where to draw grade boundaries are reached through professional script scrutiny. Even when there is a new syllabus, statistics and scripts from previous years provide an informative reference point.

So, despite the fact that this year's A-level exams are new, results are likely to show that the proportions of candidates getting each grade are similar to last year's.

The process to ensure consistent standards and fairness is long and involves teachers and senior examiners at every stage. There are paper-setting, standardising, and awarding meetings to compare this year's scripts with last year's. Review meetings, sometimes lasting more than a week, then check each marker's work.

Standards are difficult to define. In English, there are so many assessment objectives that it is difficult to say if overall achievement has got better or worse without breaking the assessment down into parts and commenting on each element separately.

The average commentator, looking for a swift judgment about students'

performance in A-level English over the years, might look at, say, relevance of their answers to the exam questions. At GCSE they might look at something as basic as as the quality of spelling.

If they did, they would see the difficulties of comparing different years of students. At GCSE there is now a gulf between the performance of students who have been well taught and had practice on past papers and those who have had very little specific training.

Those who are well trained have become skilled at the exam game. This means grades go up but does it mean that standards outside that narrow context have really risen? Trained students memorise "frames" for writing an essay so they know about starting paragraphs with phrases such as "on the other hand". Sometimes the frames take over, squeezing out original thought.

Each year presents new perspectives. The results cannot give us a clear picture of whether students are actually reading or writing better. All we can say is that teachers and pupils are taking exams more seriously. Some commentators will claim that standards are rising, others will say falling, but neither view will be based securely on evidence from this year's results.

Anne Barnes is a senior examiner in English

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