A Level Results

I was reading a news release from my local council, celebrating good A level results today, and trying to avoid the obvious question.

Are A-Levels getting easier?

Oi! I said I was trying to avoid this question. It’s not an easy question to answer.

On one hand, it seems unlikely that children have become cleverer every single year since the grading systems were changed to an absolute rather than a relative performance measure. This charge was also levelled at my year when I did my A-levels (yes, they still had them back in the 20th Century). Obviously the advantage of an absolute measure is that it’s fairer: a relative measure meant that you might need 85% to get an A grade one year and only 78% the next. On the other hand, if an exam is easier (or alternatively more difficult, but it tends to be the “easier” charge that is laid) than a previous year, then results will be better (or worse) than previous years and this too is unfair. And without setting the same exam every year, it will be difficult to ensure the same degree of difficulty in the exam papers.

And of course setting exactly the same exam paper every year would bring its own problems…

Also, for those students who hear that A levels get easier every year, it’s a bit insulting. What you’re doing is telling someone who’s worked really hard (in most cases) to achieve a particular grade that that grade isn’t actually as worthwhile as an equivalent grade achieved eight years ago. That’s just not fair on the students.

And yet, it does seem unlikely that people have been getting progressively cleverer every year.

So what is it?

Well, my personal belief is that it’s not so much that the exams are getting easier but that teachers and educational methods have evolved so as to be more able to coach students into getting through their A levels. Whether this is true, and whether or not this is a good thing are questions I’ll leave to others. Certain teachers have always been better than others, so it seems more likely to me that the standards of teaching have improved year-on-year rather than either students getting smarter or exams getting easier. Of course, it could be a combination of all of these (and possibly more) factors.

But to be honest with you, I just don’t know. I wouldn’t however even dream of suggesting to people who’ve achieved good results that their grades are worth less (or worthless) because other people have also done well.

I also know that there seems to be more people doing four A levels than ever before: I had to fight at my school for the opportunity to do three A levels and an AS level. For those of you who think it might be relevant, I’ve achieved a partial alphabet of A levels. In August 1993, I had an A, a B and a C at A level, and a C at AS level. I’ve also achieved another A level grade D since. By my reckoning I just need an E for “the set”.

Intriguingly, I discovered that one of the pupils at a Gateshead school wasn’t just good at working towards academic success, he was also a grade two bouncer. He was, in fact:

the British Schools under 19 boys champion for trampolining and competes as a grade two bouncer on the national circuit.Gateshead Council press release

I love the idea of someone competing in trampolining being a “bouncer”. I mean, how much more Plain English can you get? They bounce up and down on a trampoline, so they’re a bouncer. Fantastic. Oh, and fair play to the lad for his A levels too, but I’m more impressed with the bouncer thing.

I just hope this sort of terminology becomes extended into other arenas in future. I’d love to see the work done by a grade two plane-flier, or see Dt. Sup. Bloggs replaced by Arrester Grade Four Bloggs. Maybe I’d even qualify as a grade three Internet chappie…

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