Exam results & the ‘dumbing down’ of educational standards

Well, now, here’s a thing – two posts within a week inspired by something the Jobbing Doctor has said.  This one is related to a post about the recent record results in A level and GCSE exams.  The Jobbing Doctor worries that there is some truth to the old argument that more candidates getting good grades must be an indication that the qualifications are being “dumbed down”.

Part of the Jobbing Dr.’s case is that his scepticism is fuelled by the fact that results get better every year, and never slide backwards.  The doctor is, I’m afraid, mistaken in this belief.  A quick google search revealed this story from 2003, which reports a 0.3% fall in overall GCSE pass rates (grades A* – G) in that year.  Still, there doesn’t seem to be much reporting of actual data from year to year, so I decided to look at the results for myself to see what they showed.  (Yes, I really should get a life.  No, I’m not criticising the Jobbing Doctor for not having done this – unlike me, he has a vastly busy and important job to concentrate on.)

I looked at A level and GCSE results from 2000-2008, which are available at this website.+  I decided only to look at two subjects, Maths and English – there are some limits to even my willingness to tramp through dry-as-dust statistics.  (By the way, if you’re not interested in statistics, scroll down – I get to some more general, and hopefully more interesting, comments on the wider issues once the tables are out of the way.)  First up, A level English:

I’ll try to point out the key information contained in this table (which, like all these tables, was drawn up by me, using the data available on the website linked to above).  Overall there has been a substantial increase in the percentage of candidates achieving grades A-C – up by 18.1% in 9 years.  It’s not true to say that there has been a relentless upward trend throughout the period.  The overall percentage of A-C passes fell by 0.4% in 2004.  Perhaps even more interestingly, the percentage of candidates achieving the highest grade (A) fell by 0.4% this year (2008).

There’s a similar picture with regard to Maths A level:

The overall pass rate A-C has increased by 16.5% over 9 years, a slightly slower rate of increase than that achieved in English, although overall pass rates are higher.  The percentage of passes at grades A-C fell by 0.7% in 2001.  The percentage of candidates achieving the highest grade (A) fell by 0.5% in 2003.

Moving on to GCSEs, these are the figures for English:++

The general improvement in results is much less spectacular than that witnessed at A level.  The percentage of candidates achieving grades A*-C has increased by only 4.3% over the last 9 years.  As with the A level data, there has not been a relentless improvement year on year.  Overall pass rates A*-C fell by 0.1% in 2001.  The percentage of candidates achieving the highest grade (A*) fell by 0.3% in 2002, and fell by 0.1% in 2007.

Overall results in GCSE Maths+++ are less impressive than those in English:

The percentage of candidates achieving grades A*-C has increased by 7.1% over the 9 year period as a whole.  Overall pass rates A*-C fell by 1.2% in 2003.  The percentage of candidates achieving the highest grade (A*): remained constant in 2001; fell by 0.5% in 2003; fell by 0.1% in 2005; and fell by 0.1% in 2007.

I think there are two general conclusions that can be drawn from these data.  Firstly, it’s not fair to argue, as the Jobbing Doctor did, that results have increased year on year.  All four of the qualifications I have looked at have shown decreases of some kind on at least two occasions.  I think, as with so many other things, we have to acknowledge the influence of the mainstream media here, which report increases in pass rates far more prominently then they do falls.  The second conclusion is that there has been an overall improvement in grades over the period as a whole.  This improvement has been most noticeable at A level, but the overall figures for GCSE have also increased.

This is really as far as number-crunching can take us.  People who are inclined to worry about “dumbing down” will find plenty of evidence in the overall increase to fuel their concerns – it’s hard not to be at least surprised when the A-C rate in A level English has risen by getting on for a fifth in less than a decade.  But I think a part of the problem is to do with the way a lot of people view the world.

Standards in everything are improving all the time.  Take education – 300 years ago, most people in Britain were illiterate.  Today, most people can read and write, at least to a basic degree.  This doesn’t mean it’s got easier to read and write, or that the standards of literacy have been “dumbed down”.  It doesn’t mean, either, that people have got more intelligent.  All it means is that, as a result of more and better teaching, people have got better at reading and writing.

Take another example – sport.  New world record times have been set over the last few days in several of the competitions in the Olympics.  Probably the most high-profile examples have been Usain Bolt’s wins in the 100m, 200m and 4x100m Relay.  Taking a more historical perspective, Roger Bannister completed the fist sub-4-minute mile in 1954.  This time has now been improved upon significantly, to the extent that today someone who ran at the same speed as Roger Bannister wouldn’t even qualify for most major competitions.  This doesn’t mean that it’s got easier to run fast (although there have been improvements in things like running shoe design, which provide slight advantages to modern athletes).  It doesn’t mean that standards have been “dumbed down”, or that stopwatches run slower now than they used to.  All it means is that athletes have got better at running fast.

I could find similar examples from almost every part of human endeavour, but the fact remains that lots of people are reluctant to accept the evidence for continually improving standards.  It seems to contradict an in-built assumption that affects a lot (perhaps even the majority) of people.  Most people seem to believe to the point of absolute conviction that up to some point, usually in their early adulthood, every change was a change for the better, and part of a process of perfecting the world.  They are equally convinced that, after this point, every change has been a change for the worse, and part of a process of decay.  Since so many people are convinced in their heart-of-hearts that everything is constantly getting worse, it seems almost logical to them to assume that any evidence of improvement is actually an attempt to disguise the truth.

I’m convinced this is part of what lies behind the regular sniping about improving exam standards.  Certainly, for those of us who took our exams a while ago, it’s galling to realise that the grades we achieved are going to look steadily less and less impressive as time goes by.  Personally, I’m a bit irritated by the introduction of the A* grade, which I didn’t even have the chance of working for, and effectively downgraded my GCSE A grades to second best.

Another part of the problem is a certain wooliness of thinking, which sees exam results as directly related to intelligence – in a comment on the Jobbing Doctor’s post, the Shrink wondered whether people now really were so much cleverer than they used to be.  In fact, of course, what exams actually measure is the ability to do exams.  This ability is certainly related to intelligence, but it’s not directly proportional.  Passing exams is also a learned skill – you can be taught how to do it, and the more you practice it, the better you get at it.

This is actually key to understanding why exam standards are following a generally improving trend.  Under the old system, candidates sitting an exam at age 16 would have had no prior experience of a formal exam, unless they had taken the 11+.  These days, pupils are repeatedly examined, more or less from the moment they first set foot inside a school building, and by the time they approach their GCSEs are old hands at the whole process.

At the same time, teachers are increasingly teaching their pupils nothing but how to pass the exam.  Whereas in the past teachers might have seen it as their job to inspire the students they teach with a love for learning, or to encourage an active and enquiring mind, these days government pressure means that all that matters are good scores written on a piece of paper.  If their pupils fail to achieve these good results, schools are under threat of closure, and teachers at risk of losing their jobs.  It’s hardly surprising that the focus of every lesson is on how to answer an exam question, and that the same narrow range of topics are studied again and again and again, until pupils have had any possible interest in learning for learning’s sake driven out of them.

It seems to me that this leads to a paradoxical situation where academic standards are rising, but actual learning is suffering.  In days gone by, knowledge was seen as a good thing in its own right, a way of “improving” yourself, of enriching your experience of life, whatever you did for a job.  It was for this reason that coal-mining communities would often have vast libraries and educational associations, that were often paid for by the miners themselves (rather than middle-class “do-gooders”), and well used.  Today, there’s a danger that knowledge can be seen to have only one purpose, and that is to improve employment prospects.

Obviously, this aspect of education is crucial – we need people to learn what they need to know in order to become doctors, scientists, engineers, etc.  But it is, I think, a mistake to make it the sole focus.  It seems to me to go along with a world-view that sees people less as individuals, and more as economic units.  So, education is aimed at satisfying economic needs, not personal goals.  Medicine is aimed, not at alleviating personal suffering, but at maximising economic potential – so, for example, GP appointments have to be offered outside working hours.  Unemployment is a bad thing, not because it’s a personal tragedy, but because it places severe limits on spending, and this affects economic growth, and so affects the rich as well as the poor.

I’ve wandered quite a long way from the initial focus of this post – I could probably do with a good sub-editor to keep me focussed on the topic in hand.  Still, I guess what I really wanted to say is this.  There really isn’t any evidence at all to suggest that exam results are manipulated to demonstrate ever-increasing standards.  In fact, the evidence shows results vary both up and down from year to year, although there is a general upward trend.  We shouldn’t really be surprised by this as steadily improving standards are actually the normal way of things across the board, although quite a lot of us seem to be hard-wired to assume that all change is for the worse, and that anything that seems to be improving is the result of a “dumbing down” of standards.  And the final point I wanted to make is that, although I really don’t think there is any manipulation of the figures – and that successive waves of candidates genuinely are doing better and better in their exams – this is being achieved at the cost of an educational system that could and should be being used to help create fully rounded individuals, not just competently trained worker-drones.


+ – The figures for 2000 are included for comparison purposes in the reports for 2001.

++ – These figures are for the GCSE English qualification.  There is an additional English Literature qualification, which is predominately taken in addition to the main English qualification by candidates who are expected to perform well in the subject.  I have chosen to look at the more general qualification, as candidates with a greater range of abilities will have been entered for it.

+++ – These figures are for the main Maths qualification.  There is an additional qualification called Further Maths; my reason for choosing the more general of the two are the same as my reasons for choosing the more general qualification in English.

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6 Responses to Exam results & the ‘dumbing down’ of educational standards

  1. cb says:

    Great post with a lot of thought-provoking stuff. I agree with most of it. I remember when I took my A levels ( a few *cough* years ago) there were the same arguments so there has been a consistent ‘improvement’ noted on each successive year for the past 15 year or so if not more (I never cared much for A level results reporting before I took mine!).
    The points I think are most perninent are that kids are taught for the purposes of exams. Initially I think GCSEs were meant to move towards more coursework but the education of a rounded individual can’t really be placed in percentile scores. Intelligence is about more than access to a positive learning environment – kids whose parents are supportive are no more intelligent than kids who struggle to find a quiet place to study but they will do better in exams.

  2. Dear Aethelred,

    An excellent and thoughtful post taking me to task for asking the question about whether ‘A’-levels and GCSEs are getting easier. There is much truth in what you say (although the comparison with Roger Bannister – a distinguished neurologist) in a sense emphasise the point that the athletes constantly work towards a target).

    Students are very focussed on the assessments, and it means that they are often extremely lacking in other areas. I teach second year medical students who often say that they have not read a non-medical book for years.

  3. I started to write a comment but it got really long, so I have put a post on my blog instead:


  4. silvawingz says:

    Oh Aethelread – I know what you are saying but I looked at what my kids did and remembered what I did – I am sure mine was harder. Of course this is quite subjective anecdotal evidence and no charts either :(

  5. J. Wibble says:

    I really like your take on this, and I certainly agree with the comments about teaching to the test – I distinctly remember nearly throttling my A Level Spanish teacher when she said, “you don’t have to worry about that, it won’t be on the exam” regarding some interesting nuance of vocabulary or grammar. I am a great advocate of learning for learning’s sake, and as you so rightly point out this is being steadily beaten out of the modern school system. People shy away from certain subjects because “I won’t get a job in that so it’s not worth doing” and everything is valued in terms of employability rather than for its own sake, and if it’s not going to make you money there’s no point – even most video games nowadays center around making money!

    And what is it they say about change? Anything in the world when you are born and up to the age of 15 is the natural order of things. Anything invented between when you are 15 and 35 is new and exciting and you can probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you are 35 is against the natural order of things and shouldn’t be allowed.

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