The four Awful Truths

12th September 2003 at 01:00
Did public examination results improve this summer? Are you clear about the direction of the relevant graphs? Do you lie awake fretting about the issue, or have nightmares during which dense clouds of standards swirl up and down, round and round in ever decreasing circles, before finally disappearing up their own fundamental orifice? Then let me explain.

The A-level scores went up by 1 per cent, so standards are falling, according to awaiting predators, because the exam is getting easier. On the other hand, the overall success rate for GCSE fell by 0.3 of a per cent, so standards are certainly going down, becauseI erI they must be. Is that clear now?

Teachers have become the Grand Old Duke of York every summer, though the traditional poem has had to be amended slightly.

Oh the Grand Old Duke of York, he had ten thousand kids. He marched them up to the top of the league, and he marched them down again.

And when they were up they were down, and when they were down they were down. And when they were only half way up, they were definitely down.

Have you noticed a rather unsubtle change in the analysis of primary school test scores? When the national curriculum was launched in 1989, it was said that the "average" seven-year-old would achieve level 2 and the "average" 11-year-old level 4.

The first time that seven-year-olds were tested, this self-fulfilling prophecy duly delivered a near-perfect normal distribution. About a quarter of children obtained level 1, half were awarded level 2, and a quarter reached level 3. It was a credit to the test constructors.

This did not prevent headlines screaming that a quarter of children were below average, which came as a bit of a shock to mathematicians the world over who had foolishly believed it was about 49 and a bit per cent. One Conservative councillor, whose name I shall not reveal, but let us give him the pseudonym Mr Completebloody-idiot, said that every child should be above average. No doubt, under New Labour, they will be one day.

Now this is where the story becomes interesting. The language of discourse changed abruptly. The description of levels 2 and 4 as "average" was switched to "expected", an entirely different notion that is bound to increase failure.

Instead of congratulating schools because three-quarters of children in 2003 reach a level of performance regarded as "average" back in 1989, the nation condemns them because a quarter do not reach the "expected" level.

Even worse, if you try to argue this point, you will be labelled "complacent".

This summer the nation agonised when the overall GCSE failure rate rose from 2.1 to 2.4 per cent. Worst results for a decade was the conclusion.

Yes indeed, but a few years ago some 80 per cent left school without a single formal qualification.

The five A* to C category actually went up by 0.2 percentage points to 58.1, so nearly 60 per cent of children now get five such grades or more, when many of their equally talented forebears left with nothing. Ah, complacency again.

All of this leads to four Awful Truths. The first terrible verity is that every single preposition, adverb, or verb of upward motion in the English language means "down" when it comes to examination results. "Up", "high", "above", "rising", "improving" - for all these, substitute "down".

Awful Truth number two is that no pass-rate figure exists which will attract anything other than hostility and criticism. Ninety-eight per cent passed? The exam must be too easy. Fifty per cent? Well, half have failed, so they must be stupid. Two per cent? Far too elitist and exclusive. Think of any possible pass rate between one and one hundred and it will be jeered.

Awful Truth number three is that the story will be the same every year, no matter what the results. A five-year-old will pass A-level maths and someone's pet gerbil will get a grade C in IT. Easy peasy.

When the fourth journalist within an hour rang me to ask whether standards were rising or falling, I suggested she dust down last year's article and just change the date. Next year will be identical.

Awful Truth number four is that, while some people who criticise today's students and teachers are informed and well intentioned, others, like Councillor Completebloodyidiot, would not be able to tell a pupil from Popeye, an assessment from an ass. Indeed, they would probably fail some of the examinations they deride, and could not teach a dolphin to swim. In other words, the "expected" level of debate about exams nowadays.

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