Examination standards may not be as consistent as they once were because of the much wider range of choice allowed in the curriculum, the Department of Education and Science (DES) was told by the Manchester-based Joint Matriculation GCE Board (JMB) this week.
In its second letter in less than a month to the DES, the JMB says it is very difficult to establish whether or not there has been a fall in educational standards.
It is not even clear what is meant by a "fall in standards". It could mean pupils are less skilled or knowledgeable, teachers less hard-working or competent, examiners more erratic or that today's curriculum is less worthwhile.
But the board admits it is extremely difficult to ensure strict comparability among all the different subjects, the same subjects from year to year, alternative papers for the same subjects, and among different exam boards.
Although the prime concern of every board is to maintain comparable standards, there is no hard evidence that they have been successful. "Comparability studies can be expected to lead to clear conclusions only if there are major divergences of standards," the JMB said.
Ensuring comparability of grades is made more difficult by the increased numbers of options or alternative syllabuses for each subject and the greater variety of assessment methods that schools can now use.
There have been developments in objective testing and computers have been used to improve the accuracy of many aspects of examining, but it is debatable whether examining at 16-plus is more or less accurate now than it was 20 years ago.
It is not for exam boards to decide whether consistency in public exams should take precedence over freedom in the curriculum, but it is an issue to be faced in the discussions taking place about core curricula and educational standards, the JMB concludes.