Is school getting easier?

Posted by Andy Gavin on Tue, 2009-08-25 23:37

Again, in the UK, the debate over A level exams has come up, and it is easy to ask whether they are fit for purpose. Some critics of the exam think that the real agenda in education is one of social engineering, and that aspiration is better than despondency. Others say that the exams are hard and students are working harder than ever to obtain the grades they need to get to universities. Universities on the other hand are finding that many entrants need additional remedial tuition to bring them up to the standard required. For me there are a number of things that get missed from many comments I've heard on the issue, most recently on Any Answers on the BBC:

The world has changed
From a technology point of view the competition is greater. At one point the infrastructure provided by the UK, the libraries and the communities provided information and support that were not available in many places in the world. With the internet more materials are available to students, research takes less time. This must impact on eduction. In my field, I recently watched a video of an American university lecture. The lecturer said in this lecture, he'd expect the best schools in America to be teaching Java--- a language that is used in industry now--- in middle schools now. To me this would be right, I started programming in my bedroom at that age and schools were really nowhere near in terms of curriculum. The question is are the exams now meeting the needs of the modern world, not the needs of the old world. Some skills have not changed, others have changed quite a lot.

The marking has changed
When I was at college I had a lecturer who had been an A level examiner. He had explained the marking system was one in which only a certain proportion of candidates will get each mark: marks were distributed so only a fixed percentage of candidates would get an A. Since 2000 however the system is different. Grade is entirely based on the mark received if exams are getting easier this has the increasing result that everyone is moving up and perhaps off the scale.

Fitness for purpose
The question should not really be whether the exams are getting easier. That is a secondary issue to whether they are fit-for-purpose. If universities and employers are unable to distinguish between candidates with the same mark, the exams are not performing the role. I've certainly met employers who regard the International Baccalaureate as better than an A level. Whether this is true or not something should be done to stem some of the criticism of the exams for the sake of the students working hard to pass them.

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