The UK’s A level results came out this week and amongst all the opinions and emotions expressed I found the above graph profoundly significant. Essentially the whole ‘Exam Debate’ comes down to one simple question: Does this graph indicate a success, or a failure? Those who think it indicates a success attribute the rise to better teaching and those who think it indicates a failure attribute the rise to falling standards. I attribute the rise to what I call ‘wrong headedness’ – a complete inability to understand what A levels – and exams more widely – are for.
Before 1985, getting an A grade at A level meant that a student had received an mark in the top 9% of results. In most subjects this mark was determined by performance in one or two exams taken at the end of a two year course of study. The purpose of the grading was to discriminate amongst the students. It offered teachers collectively no chance to improve. After 1985, everything changed and has kept changing ever since. The major shift was to a system where an A grade indicated a particular level of achievement. This offered the possibility that if teaching improved then more children would receive A grades. However changes in the style of exam, the modular exam system (which means that no one is ever tested on the whole syllabus) and the frankly appalling system in which the exam boards became wholly owned by publishers, means that a simple interpretation of the above as representing an improvement is not very convincing.
One role of our school system is to pass on the accumulated knowledge and understanding of our culture: this sounds rather pompous but it is true. It is hard to think of a more important task for any culture to undertake. The role of exams within this system is (very broadly) to check that this is being done. More specifically it needs to BOTH check that students know certain things by demonstrating a basic understanding AND to discriminate amongst the students and identify those with special talents or affinities. The above graph – and its seemingly unstoppable linear trend – indicates a collective failure to recognise the second purpose of exams.