The A-level fiasco

And a fiasco it is. 8.2% get A*, 27% get at least an A making it clear that the current generation is the brightest ever. As a member of a previous generation I'd just like to say bollocks.

For non-Brits, "A-level" is short for the GCE Advanced Level exam, a course that normally requires 2 years of study by 16-18 year olds after they complete GCSE exams at age 16. Typically a student would take 3 (occasionally 4) A-levels, each in a distinct subject e.g Maths, English Literature, German, Biology, Economics. It used to be assessed on a small number of exams taken right at the end of 2-year study, but over the past 20 years more coursework has counted towards the final grade. Grades used to be A (best) through E (poor), with U (unclassified) as an option if you were completely asleep throughout all exams.

I've read the paper Changes in standards at GCSE and A-Level:
 Evidence from ALIS and YELLIS by Robert Coe of Durham University, for the Office of National Statistics in 2007. Maths grades over 20 years have risen 2 full grades from 1988 to 2006 - a C student in Chemistry in 1988 would have got an A in 2006. And for maths it's over 3 full grades, so a D student would have an A. WTF?

Is this a problem? As someone heavily involved in recruiting, I assure you it is. The minor annoyance is that it is tricky to compare candidates' grades across multi-year gaps: AAB in 2005 may not indicate a student who is any brighter than one with BBB in 1998, say. But that's not too common a situation. A major annoyance is that you lose the ability to spot distinctive candidates; a 3-A candidate was the exception back in the early 90's, and so if you spotted one you'd move heaven and earth to get them in for interview. But now everyone and his dog has 3 A's.

But the greatest problem, one that seems seldom discussed, is ego. Ten years ago, if you worked hard and gained A-levels at ABB in Maths, English and Physics then you could rightly feel that you were approaching a mastery of the first subject but realise that you had some way to go to get a proper grip on Physics and English. Nowadays, you'd have A grades across the board and you'd feel invincible, despite your Physics knowledge having significant gaps and being unable to write grammatical English. If someone tries to correct you, you'll have none of it: "Oh, I have top grades in those subjects, I know what I'm talking about".

My solution? Grade on a curve. Fixed percentages of A, B, C, D, E; at least in the major subjects which don't have significant skew in the ability of those studying them (Latin and Greek are tricker to grade fairly for this reason). Better yet, give the student their percentile position directly in bands of 5% or so. I'd also like to see at least one impossible question in each subject's exams, just to keep student egos in check. Those who think they know it all really annoy those of us who do. (Ahem)

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