Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Are exams getting easier?

A lot of stuff gets written at this time of year about whether or not exams are getting easier. A lot of this stuff is ill-informed drivel, and in any case the whole issue is usually tackled in a naïve way. Here are a few thoughts of mine on the subject.

  1. The actual grades awarded depend to a very great extent on the threshold marks. Is an “A” awarded for 81%, 80%, or 79% (or 71, 70, 69 in Scotland)? These thresholds are arrived at after a good deal of enquiry and discussion and study by senior figures. The simple statistics are used. One does not want “A” grades (for example) to rocket from, say 23% of candidates to 46% of candidates. But the markers’ judgements as to whether questions have turned out to be harder or easier for candidates, the quality of some answers selected at random with marks close to the threshold, and so on, are also taken into account.

  1. Yes, the definition of “A” has changed a little over the years. It no longer means “super excellent”. It means “you can do what this exam requires very well.” The first definition had little value; the second one means something useful for all concerned. Exams do not exist to make it easier for would-be elite universities to select their students (though if they do save busy academics time, then fair enough). Mind you, one can over-state this case. In the old days “B” was universally regarded as a good grade (because it was) whereas now you too often hear people saying “He only got a B” – as though that meant mediocrity, not competence.

  1. The questions set in an exam must be related to the content of the course. When I was ten years old I had nine Latin lessons every week. Naturally the Latin exams I sat contained more words, and more complicated grammar, than exams for candidates who had undergone a more balanced timetable. we did no science at all. To a very great extent questions become easier or harder not because of some absolute standard of difficulty but simply whether or not they test material that the pupil has studied in depth during the course. Questions on stuff that comes at the end of the syllabus are always harder than stuff that was covered early on and re-worked, used and revised over the whole session.

  1. In all the subjects for which I have prepared senior pupils (History, English, Politics, Modern Studies), the way in which essays are marked has an overwhelming effect on final percentages. One of the things the profession has done over the last few decades is start to think that very good essays should get close to full marks, whereas when I started teaching 60% was regarded as a very good score. That is really just pedagogical fashion, and has nothing to do with falling or rising standards.

  1. In all the essay-writing subjects, when I started teaching there were no clear definitions of what the syllabus was and no clear definitions of an A-grade essay. For example, should an essay begin with an introduction or not? What relative weights should be given to quality of argument and sheer quantity of recalled material? And so on. I recall teachers-meet-the-examiners meetings in the 1980s at which teachers who were also markers became incandescent with rage as they discovered that some markers had different notions on these things from their own. Only in the late 80s and 90s did we start to get attempts at definition. Today, thank goodness, every teacher, and every pupil, can find on-line their exam board's definitions of A grade, B grade and C grade qualities. Good teachers – even not very good ones – use these in their teaching and so candidates are more efficiently prepared for what they have to face.

  1. The same applies to syllabi (or is it syllabuses?). When I started teaching the A-level European History syllabus was just that – European History. A study of past papers gave good clues as to what might be examined (French History overwhelmingly, as I recall) but the lottery effect was terrifying. One candidate might revise four topics and get four questions: another candidate might revise seven topics and only get three. That certainly made exams “harder” but in a totally uneducational and silly way. Now every syllabus clearly explains what may or may not be tested. If it is in the syllabus you have no complaints if it is asked. If is not in the syllabus, it won’t be. Candidates should cover everything in the syllabus and nothing else. This is harder work, but fairer.

  1. One very specific procedural change has meant that more candidates get “A” at A-level. The AS courses are intended to give pupils a grounding in the basics of the subject and are generally more straightforward than A-levels, where “curve balls” – questions of unexpected scope and complexity – may be thrown. An able candidate who works hard ought to be able to get good marks at AS (though I have known pupils so able that they could not think themselves down to the necessary brevity), and these marks are added in to the final A-level grade. This is not about making the exams “easier”, though. The key phrase in the previous sentence was “who works hard”. Pupils in what I still think of as the Lower Sixth work far, far harder than their predecessors did, in the days when the first meaningful exam was nearly two years away. Their academic studies are not “easier”; but they know that their efforts will be rewarded, and so they make the effort.

  1. Moreover, candidates can re-sit AS papers to improve their marks. For some this has become more of a mark-grubbing exercise than intended. But that is the fault of the universities. If UCAS conditions are “3 As”, then the luckless applicant will leave no stone unturned to get them, even if that means trying to claw an AS score up from 80% to 85%. What was intended, however, – and what still happens – is educationally a very good thing. AS courses are supposed to develop the basics. A candidate who has not mastered the basics is encouraged to work on them some more to achieve competence, just as many of you, dear readers, were allowed to re-train as drivers and re-sit the driving test after you had failed it the first time. School and examination structures must include ways for those who don’t get everything right first time to have another go.

  1. Then there are those wretched league tables. Since they were introduced almost everyone in schooling – pupils, parents, teachers, heads, governors, journalists and politicians - looks at them first. Just as the DRS system in cricket is not being used quite as those who devised it intended, so league tables are making almost everyone grade-grubbers in a way that was not at all so when I was at school, or when I began teaching. Thank goodness that for all my career I worked for people who put individual pupils above statistical tables; but I was lucky.

  1. And finally (to leave the most important point till last), the main point of the exam system is NOT to produce grades and orders of merit, and to save university selectors’ time. The main point is to see that pupils have worthwhile experiences in school. What has happened in History (which I taught for nearly forty years) is that courses have become far more demanding, even as grades have improved. The modern candidates have to do the old fashioned stuff of learning a great deal of information, making sense of it, and writing essays based upon it. But they also have to be able to analyse the value of modern historians’ arguments (a very difficult skill indeed, which my generation did not encounter till university) and make intelligent use of primary sources. They also have to plan, research, draft, improve, proof-read and finalise a longish dissertation of some sort (rules vary between exam boards). Their grades may be better, but they are also better educated. As for the O-level/GCSE change – it is chalk and cheese. Instead of marks for relevant factual recall (with a question lottery) and little else, now a range of questions have to be interpreted, sources have to be analysed and synthesised and coursework prepared. The courses are (if properly set up) far better.

There could be more said on the subject, but that is quite enough. Scientists and mathematicians please note that I lack the knowledge to say things about your subjects.

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