The news our older siblings have been telling us every time we open that all-important results envelope has recently been confirmed by Ofqual, the exams regulator – GCSEs and A levels have been getting easier.
Specifically, the watchdog claims that Chemistry, Biology and Geography exams over the last ten years have become less demanding for students; however, it does not stop there. In 1990, two years after GCSEs were introduced, almost 50% of grades awarded were a grade C or above, whilst by 2010, this figure was 69.1%. Similarly, A Level passes have risen every year for nearly three decades.
But don’t be fooled into thinking that students are getting cleverer every year. Of course not – your A grades mean nothing.
Ofqual point to an increase in multiple choice and short answer questions that require simple knowledge recall as opposed to longer, multiple-step or argument-oriented answers. Furthermore, the increasingly modular structure of qualifications means that students are being tested almost constantly, and thus on smaller amounts of knowledge each time. And if that isn’t help enough, modules can be retaken multiple times. All of this results in increasingly easy GCSE and A level exams.
Students are even being actively aided by the exam boards: Just remember the scandal in late 2011, when a WJEC exam board seminar was secretly filmed telling teachers what would be on the upcoming exams. How nice of them to help out their students.
It’s understandable, although perhaps not morally sound, for exam boards to want their exams to be easier. Some of them are for-profit companies, and thereby create a market that encourages getting a competitive edge by appealing to head teachers’ desire for league table success, which often means making their exams less demanding. This is emblematic of where the real fault with our education system lies: Challenging each student’s intellect is no longer a priority, as long as everybody passes. Pupils are no longer taught their subjects, and then assessed on their intellect at the year’s end. Instead, they are taught how to pass exams.
Certain topics are focused on at the expense of others, not for their real life value or intellectual interest, but for their use in passing exams. Precise quotes, formulas and pre-packaged answers are memorised and recalled, rather than understood and interpreted. Brilliant – we all get fantastic grades and get into the sixth forms and universities that we want.
But shouldn’t we all feel cheated? We may leave school with superficially better grades than our older siblings and parents, but do we really know any more? More importantly, do we really know anything about our subjects?
Not really. We can only repeat those quotes we were once told to learn by heart, leaving sixth form just as uneducated about the world as before.