Report on exams defies pessimists

6th December 1996 at 00:00
There has been no decline in standards at A-level or GCSE according to the long-awaited report by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority and the Office for Standards in Education, despite the concerns of traditionalist critics.

Even so, the Education and Employment Secretary, Gillian Shephard, this week promised a "crackdown" to ensure, she said, that exam standards remain high in future. There will be a rolling programme of reviews covering all subjects.

She has called for substantial changes to A-levels, with calculator-free papers in maths, and more great authors from before the nineteenth century for English candidates.

There will be greater emphasis on grammar and punctuation for GCSE students, and SCAA has been told to consider re-introducing separate exams for English language and literature.

Mrs Shephard also wants a reduction in the number of exam boards and syllabuses after the report suggested that differences between boards can be greater than variations over time.

Many of the changes she requires are already under way thanks to SCAA's controversial re-drafting of the A-level "core" elements.

This week's SCAAOFSTED report examined standards in three subjects - English, chemistry and mathematics - since 1975 at GCSE and A-level. It was commissioned against a background of concern over the past decade's persistent rise in the pass rate and in the numbers achieving the highest grades.

Traditionalists, including a number of MPs, will be disappointed to find, however, that according to the authors of the report, the evidence of a decline does not exist. Standards had remained constant apart from in A-level maths, where the pass grade, E, had become easier.

However the consultants did find big changes in the syllabuses over time which could have sacrificed depth for breadth.

Mrs Shephard's recommendations echo those of the report itself. In A-level English it calls for a return to more pre-1900 texts and the "traditions" of English literature, and asks SCAA to consider barring candidates from taking texts into exams.

In maths, there should be calculator-free papers, less step-wise "structuring" of the questions, and a greater emphasis on algebra and problem-solving.

In chemistry it wants more inorganic chemistry, fewer highly structured questions and more knowledge of balanced equations.

At GCSE there has already been a review of standards. But this week's report calls for more safeguards such as an emphasis on grammar in English.

It also wants guarantees that GCSE maths is sufficient preparation for A-level.

Publication of the report has been greatly delayed by rows between the two bodies responsible for it. OFSTED has been pressing for a much harder interpretation of the evidence than the curriculum authority believes is scientifically valid.

Conclusions on A-Levels

* English: the nature of demand has changed but the candidates' performances have not changed over this period. The demands on candidates in 1975, 1985 and 1995 were comparable.

* Maths: the pass mark, grade E, has fallen in two of three syllabuses studied. The grade A boundary remains comparable, but the syllabus demands less problem solving and algebra. Standards in statistics have risen. Comparisons in mechanics are inconclusive.

* Chemistry: overall standards in physical and theoretical chemistry have remained largely unchanged.

The report calls for a "rolling programme of reviews" of all subjects, starting with physics, history, French and German.

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