Standards of public examinations in England and Wales

The debate over A-level standards has reopened following reports that this year’s pass rate will reach 97 per cent compared to 68 per cent in 1982.

Independent evidence has shown that A-level standards have fallen sharply since 1988. For example, i.e. a student achieving an E in A-level mathematics in 1988 would have achieved a B in 2004.

A new ICM poll for Reform has found that most voters believe that standards have fallen. Nearly half of all voters (46 per cent) believe that A-levels have become a little easier or much easier over the last 10-15 years, against only 11 per cent who believe they have become harder. Three times as many voters attribute the improvement in performance to easier A-level exams (37 per cent) than to better teaching (14 per cent) or brighter students (10 per cent). 24 per cent attribute the rise to improved facilities.

Universities have been forced to respond to the decline in standards by:

– Setting higher entry requirements. For example, from next year Trinity College, Dublin will require four A-levels from English and Welsh applicants, rather than three previously, for competitive courses such as medicine and law;

-Lengthening degree courses to cover material that was previously covered at A-level. This is common in mathematics, physics and engineering degrees; and

-Setting independent tests to differentiate between the many students now achieving very high A-level marks. Students wishing to study medicine, history and law at Oxford University must now sit independent tests of their ability, set in conjunction with other universities, as well as A-levels.

Schools have also responded. The number of state and independent school registered to teach the International Baccalaureate, which has robust standards, has increased from 45 in 2001 to 71 this year and is expected to rise to 200 over the next two years.

Other independent evidence has shown that the standard of GCSE examinations and of the National Tests in english and mathematics for 11 year-olds have also fallen. In both cases students’ abilities have improved but by far less than that implied by the official statistics.

The period of decline in standards of examinations has coincided with the Department for Education taking responsibility for their regulation. Its control has been exercised through the School Examinations and Assessment Council (1988) and the National Curriculum Council (1988), replaced by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority in 1993, which was replaced by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority in 1998.

In addition, since the early 1990s, the Department has taken responsibility for increasing the number of students passing public examinations. The result is a clear conflict of interest and a structure in which the Department has a clear incentive to allow standards to fall.

The Department maintains that standards are not falling: a Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman yesterday said: “What the evidence shows is that standards are being maintained.” This is clearly disproved by the evidence.

In fact, in the 14-19 White Paper, published in February 2005, the Government accepted that A-levels needed to be made more “stretching”. But its main proposal – to introduce a block of harder questions at the end of each A-level to allow the brightest students to distinguish themselves – addresses the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause. It would have no more effect than introducing a new higher grade (as has already happened with GCSEs).

Since October 2004, the Conservative Party has proposed to strengthen the role of Ministers over public examinations. Such an approach is likely to make current trends even worse.
The long overdue reform is for the Department for Education and Skills to withdraw from its management role which has led the decline in examination standards. Independent university-led exam boards would then develop robust qualifications.

If government wishes to devote resources to maintaining standards, it should fund a modest and independently-run monitoring service to measure the ability of students each year.