Exam golden-age syndrome

21st September 2001 at 01:00
How could Peter Wilby get it so wrong (when he says exams have got easier) ("Stop the fuss, we need exam standards to fall", TES, September 7)?

Examining is an inexact science, but grades need to be awarded according to quality of work, and consistent standards maintained from year to year. These are formal requirements for the awarding bodies.

In any case, market forces dictate that consumers (ie those who get or use the results) will not to be satisfied with any board whose marking is sub-standard. Responsibility for ensuring "comparability" - consistency between boards, between subjects and across years - lies with the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority.

There are obvious variables in the GCSE, AS and A-level examinations: changes in subject criteria, changes in the nature of candidates, or the introduction of entirely new exams such as the AS where there is no previous form. This can make grading difficult but the principle remains the same, grades vary according to quality of work.

There is extensive monitoring, internally and externally, to ensure standards are maintained at every stage - from paper-setting, to marking, to awarding grades, to post-exam studies.

Competition between exam boards is about the service they provide, not who has the easier exam. Political imperatives to raise grades play no part in setting exam standards.

The major factors in the improvement in exam performance have been the raising of the school-leaving age and "bog-standard" comprehensive schools increasing access to exams at 16-plus and beyond; another factor might be - dare one suggest? - improvements in teaching and learning.

All this should be well-known, but it is the end of the silly season, and the golden-age syndrome is alive and well.

Keith Davidson Council member, College of Teachers (and former exam board senior officer), 16 Sebright Road Hemel Hempstead, Hertfordshire

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