TEACHERS believe that exam standards have fallen in recent years, research for the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has revealed.
Years of rising pass rates at GCSE and A-level are a result not simply of better teaching and students' hard work, but also of modular assessment, simpler questions and teaching to the test, staff believe.
Most teachers interviewed by pollsters Mori said they underestimated the grades students would get and were often shocked by how good they were. "On the whole, teachers suspected that exam standards had not been maintained over time," said the research.
The research also shows teachers are now more sceptical about standards than the public.
The findings, from a series of focus groups last year, coincide with the start of what has become an annual standards debate.
Nottingham university researchers conducted four focus group interviews for Mori, in Bath, Luton, York and Manchester with teachers from all sectors of education. The team, led by Professor Roger Murphy, found teachers felt it was difficult to compare GCSEs with O-levels, and pre-2000 A-levels with the new system of AS and A2 exams.
However, these and other changes had made exams more "accessible" to a wider range of students. Exams now tested breadth, rather than depth, of knowledge, and what students knew, rather than what they did not know, said teachers.
In many cases, modularisation had made them easier for lower-ability groups. The rise of coursework and the "more structured and simpler presentation" of questions were also factors.
Some also said their lack of confidence in exam boards had undermined their faith in standards.
The research included interviews with 27 key education "players" - including members of the Government and union leaders - and a survey of 1,800 members of the public. Members of the public were uncertain about whether standards had been maintained. Most said exams at 16 were now harder than when they sat them, but for exams at 18, the typical view was that standards had stayed the same. Most key players said it was impossible to compare different eras.
A summary of the study is on the QCA's website. It is refusing to release the research in full, arguing it was for "internal" purposes only.
Professor Carol Fitz-Gibbon, an expert on standards from Durham university, said: "The Government should not be criticised for making (exams) accessible to a wider ability group. But it then should not try to claim standards have improved."
Pass rates for A-levels have gone up as the number sitting them has risen.
In the early 1980s 200,000 entered and almost one in three failed. Last year, when 500,000 took A-levels, just one in 17 did so.
The proportion getting C or better at GCSE has also risen, from 42 per cent when it was introduced in 1988, to 58 per cent last year.
Former chief inspector Mike Tomlinson, who is leading an exams task force, has backed the abolition of GCSEs and A-levels and the launch of a baccalaureate-style diploma.