In 1985 around 9% of students obtained ‘A’ grades in their A-level exams. Since then, the percentage has increased every year and in 2010 the result was 27%. Is that because students are working harder and teachers are teaching smarter? Well, I can’t answer that question for every subject, but for physics the answer is an unequivocal ‘No’.
I can say this with certainty because the experience has been mournfully recounted to me by many teachers. And this month the anecdotal evidence was confirmed in an interesting paper by Professor Peter Barham published in Physics Education (download pdf here). Since 1975 the entire student intake to the physics course at Bristol University has taken essentially the same Prior Knowledge Test (PKT). Professor Barham published an analysis of these results and I have summarised one aspect of his analysis in the graph at the head of the page. It shows that scores testing prior knowledge of physics have declined by around 25% and are still falling.
Summarising, our national exam structure is reporting continuous improvement, but in reality students can achieve less and less. As I have commented previously, results such as this represent a national disgrace. This shameful situation is the product of:
- A ‘corrupt‘ structure involving a politically-motivated ‘curriculum development authority’
- The modularisation of courses so that there is no requirement to master an entire subject.
- The ownership of all significant exam boards by publishing companies.
Together these elements have combined to drive down educational standards. If this were a sport’s challenge these steps would involve:
- Lowering the height of a ‘high jump test’ year upon year.
- Stating that students could jump one metre when in fact they could only jump 25 centimetres, but they could do it 4 times.
- The high jump inspectors guarantee the average height of the bar, but it is higher in some places and lower in others. The high jump inspectors publish guides explaining where the low points are.
In this case we can see that reports of continuous improvements in ‘high jump’ would be laughable. However, the educational system really matters. It is the way in which we pass on our combined cultural appreciation from generation to generation. And the confidence trick in which our educational establishment has conspired should make us angry.
However things appear to be changing. The modularisation of courses is slowly being undone. For his GCSE exams my second son will have to take all his science exams at the end of the course, a more difficult task than that which faced my first son. Michael Gove has now announced that in future A level ‘content’ will need to ‘involve’ academics at Universities. At this point it is impossible to foresee what this ‘involvement’ actually means, but it is probably a step in the right direction. However only when exam boards become fully independent of publishing companies do we stand a chance of reversing the continuous devaluation of educational qualifications.