24 August 2011

Devalued A-Levels -- A (barely) International Perspective

Grade inflation is a boringly predictable topic in the papers and online every August. The big question among those who note the incessant improvement in exam results is whether the exams that mark the end of secondary education have gotten easier over the years, or whether -- as some will maintain -- it's simply that teaching has improved, such that students learn better. I know people in both camps.

It's hardly surprising that people should have concerns. A-Level results, which were generally consistent from one to the next until the 1980s, have improved now for 29 straight years. Back in 1982, 68.2 per cent of students passed their exams and one student in eight got one A in their A-Levels. Nowadays, 97.8 per cent of students pass their A-Levels and one student in eight gets three A's.

This is usually the point at which someone pops up to blame Labour for this, possibly doing so implicitly by treating 1997 as kind of Year One for grade inflation, focusing on how the highest grades rose every year between 1997 and 2010, with this rise suddenly being arrested this year.

This claim isn't so much inaccurate as misleading, as it requires one to ignore the general upward thrust in the top grades for more than a decade prior to 1997, and the fact that the number of students passing the A-Levels has risen every single year since 1982. I'm not saying that matters didn't get worse under Labour, but again, as with so many of Britain's problems, the phenomenon predates the era of Blair and Brown by some way. Radical grade inflation had been a clearly discernible problem for years before Labour came to power. Just look at the chart!

The stability in results that marked the A-Levels prior to the mid-eighties was a direct result of them being marked on a selection basis, rather than a criterion basis; they were marked on a curve such that, say, only the top 10 per cent of students could be awarded an A in any given subject, irrespective of their actual score on the paper. During the eighties the system shifted towards a criterion basis, such that nowadays the awarded grades are based more on individual performance rather than on comparison with peers.

(There's a comparative element in the marking even now, but it's relatively minor.)

In principle this is more objective that norm-based selection marking and should allow for results varying significantly from year to year, based on the ability of any given year's students. In practice, however, one could be forgiven for wondering why the results keep on improving... especially when research at the University of Durham has found that a 1980s 'C' grade is the equivalent of a modern 'A'.

I'm often baffled at the tendency to conduct these debates in bubbles, without reference to other countries. There's a lot to be learned by comparing countries with each other, not least because it involves recognising that there are standards other than our own.
I can really only speak with any authority about the Irish system, so let's just run with that as an example. The fundamental thing to grasp here is that Irish students have always done more subjects than English ones: whereas a typical English student did three A-Level subjects, a typical Irish one did seven or even eight. For example, I studied Maths, English, Irish, German, History, Geography, Accounting, and Applied Maths. We went for breadth over depth, leaving specialisation to third level education. Our marks in no more than six subjects are considered when allocating university places.

When I did my Leaving Cert, back in the day, I gave serious thought to applying to go to university in the UK. There were no fees in British universities, after all, unlike Irish ones.** Anyway, one of the things I learned back then was that the standard way of translating Leaving Cert results into A-Level ones was a straightforward two-for-one equation, such that, for example, British universities would consider six Leaving Cert subjects with a results profile of AAAABB to be the equivalent of three A-Levels with a profile of AAB. The opposite arrangement applied for British students applying to study in Ireland: Irish universities regarded each A-Level  as being the equivalent of two Leaving Cert subjects.

It's not like that now. In fact, it hasn't been like that in some time. I remember my then girlfriend getting annoyed six or seven years back when I explained to her how Trinity College in Dublin had downgraded the value of the A-Levels relative to the Leaving Cert. I dread to think what she'd think if I were to tell her that UCD, my alma mater, now explicitly regards the modern 'A*' result as the equivalent of an 'A' result of even a couple of years back, with the current 'A' being only marginally better than the older 'B'.
Broadly speaking, Irish universities now take the view that from the viewpoint of University entry requirements, a British 'A' is no longer twice as valuable as an Irish 'A'; on the contrary, it's roughly one-and-a-half times as valuable. A British 'B', which used to be worth two mid-range Irish 'B' grades, is now worth a mid-level 'B' grade and a bare pass, or two low-level 'C' grades. Take a look at this chart, comparing the points awarded for Leaving Cert, A-Level, and AS-Level grades, and leaving out such complexities as bonus points being offered for higher level Maths.

Confused? Okay, well try putting meat on those bones. What does this mean? Well, let's assume you got three A* results in your A-Levels. That'd give you 450 points. Would you like to know what UCD courses you'd not get onto with 450 points? As things stand this year, just based on the first round of offers, 450 points wouldn't be enough for any of: Architecture; Science; Actuarial and Financial Studies; Human Nutrition; Veterinary Medicine; Radiography; Physiotherapy; Health & Performance Science; Biomedical, Health and Life Scences; Children’s & General Nursing; Midwifery; English; History; Psychology; Law; Business & Law; Law with French, History, Politics, Philosophy, or Economics; International Commerce; or Economics and Finance.

And I'm not even getting into what you'd need to get into Medicine.

To have a decent chance at any of those subjects, you'd need three A* results and an AS result in something other than your main three. And General Studies doesn't count for points. For what it's worth, almost all of those require you to have done English, Maths, and at least one other language to GCSE level as the most basic requirement to be allowed do the course, and there are strict requirements barring certain A-Level subjects from being presented together: for example, you cannot present both English Language and English Literature, or both History and Classical Civilization, or both Environmental Studies and Geography.

Trinity College Dublin uses basically the same system, likewise evaluating candidates on the basis of either four A-Levels done in one year or three A-Levels done one year in combination with an AS level done the previous year in a different subject, albeit with a smaller range of barred subject combinations.

Lest you think this is just a matter of Irish universities being arsey, take a look at how the British Universities compare the two systems.

It's basically the same, isn't it? The agreed line seems to be that an Irish Leaving Cert subject, which used to be regarded as worth half an A-Level, is now regarded as worth about two-thirds of one. And this isn't because the Irish standards have risen...

We have to be fair, and admit that the old way of weighing the two sets of examinations against each other was far from systematic, but I think most people would agree that it was broadly fair. If it was any way accurate, then we're looking at a serious problem. The value of the A-Levels seems to have collapsed by a quarter relative to the Irish Leaving Cert, at a time when it is widely recognised in Ireland that the value of the Leaving Cert has itself been slipping. What this means for the real decline of the value of the A-Levels and British education in general doesn't really bear thinking about, but given how OECD and ONS figures show that literacy, numeracy, and cognitive skills in general have either declined or at best improved in a marginal way, I really think some facts need to be faced.

One thing we need to do is not merely to consider whether the A-Levels are fit for purpose, but to consider what their purpose is. Is it to stand in their own right as a certification of having completed secondary schooling to a high level, or is it to act as an entrance exam for third level education, or is it both? If it's either of the latter options, then it mightn't be a bad idea to introduce a percentile score alongside grades, so that university admissions can be conducted on the basis of data far more precise and meaningful than what is currently available.

If it's the former, or the other hand, then maybe it'd make more sense to concentrate less on examination than on education, so that the real emphasis would be placed on what children are learning. And no, Mister Toad, that doesn't just mean indoctrinating children with stuff we're obsessed with.

** Sic transit gloria mundi and all that.

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