The brightest mathematics candidates at A-level are facing little more than a speed test because the questions have become so straightforward, according to a confidential analysis by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority.
SCAA says that the A-level exam is under increasing strain as it struggles to tackle a huge increase in candidates and a wide ability range. Exam setters have responded by making maths questions easier.
This week, Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard launched a series of measures aimed at restoring the exam's "gold standard" reputation.
At the same time, she came under fire from Colin Goldsmith, one of the maths experts behind the influential Standards over Time report, a joint study of A-level standards during the past 20 years by SCAA and the Office for Standards in Education. He denounced the "gold standard" as a dangerous illusion.
"No politician of any party has been brave enough to explain to the public that lowering standards is often appropriate and highly desirable, leading in some respects to higher standards," writes Mr Goldsmith, the maths co-ordinator for Standards over Time, in this week's TES.
It is "unhelpful and irrelevant" to use crude statements like "standards have fallen," he writes. The reality is that passmarks have risen and failure rates reduced. In 1975, 40 per cent of students failed despite having some ability.
While weaker candidates are well served at present, he says, the brightest are suffering - often tested for little more than speed. He calls for tiered papers to cope with the wide ability range.
SCAA's analysis of 1996 maths exams has been sent to all the A-level boards, several of which dispute its findings. The document says that "the increasing demand in terms of workload on candidates in 1996 to complete the papers in the time available often appeared to be a greater challenge to the grade-A candidate than the inherent difficulty of the questions."
The analysis also concludes that last summer's questions were significantly easier than in 1995.
Setting papers suitable for all candidates is, concedes SCAA, "a very significant challenge indeed".
Mrs Shephard's response to this sort of concern has been to tighten up A-level standards. This week's proposals included reducing the number of exam boards and syllabuses to ensure comparability.
But according to Mr Goldsmith, a chief examiner in maths with the Oxford and Cambridge Schools Examination Board, any attempt to return to the standards of the past amounts to "political cowardice" - for ignoring the evidence that the current maths A-level is doing a good job. "The marks scored will drop, " he writes, "confidence will be eroded and numbers will plummet again."
Curriculum, TES2, page 21