Thursday, August 14, 2008

Exams for British High School diplomas 'now two grades easier than 20 years ago'

A-level exams are now two grades easier than they were 20 years ago, academics claimed last night. Sixth-formers of the same ability awarded C grades in the late 1980s can now expect to gain As, they said.

Researchers found that average results improved by more than two grades in most subjects, even though students were no brighter. In mathematics, scores jumped by three-and-a-half grades. Academics said the trend was likely to be influenced by a number of factors, including a fall in the rigour of exams combined with an increased focus on test preparation in schools and colleges, reigniting the debate over A-level standards.

The findings - in a study by Durham University - come as almost 250,000 students prepare to receive results of A-levels on Thursday. Experts are already predicting a rise in the number of passes and A grades. Last year, 25.3 per cent of papers were awarded the top mark - more than double the number in 1990.

Ministers have long claimed that the rise is down to improved teaching. But the latest study - published yesterday(MON) as part of a wide-ranging review of A-levels by the Institute of Directors - said it was "hard to see how the claim could be convincingly substantiated". The claims fail to explain why results improve quicker some years than others, or why improvements at A-level have been much quicker than GCSEs.

"A-level and GCSE grades achieved in 2007 certainly do correspond to a lower level of general academic ability than the same grades would have done in previous years," said the report. "Whether or not they are better taught makes no difference to this interpretation; the same grade corresponds to a lower level of general ability."

Robert Coe and Peter Tymms, from Durham's Curriculum, Evaluation and Management Centre, analysed standards achieved in A-levels between 1988 and 2007. They then compared them with the outcome of aptitude tests over the last two decades, which measure pupils' skills in a range of subjects without testing curriculum knowledge. They found that students with similar results in the independently-administered exam went on to score much better A-levels in 2007 than in 1988.

In the study group, the average student was awarded an E in biology in 1988, but similar sixth-formers gained a comfortable C last summer. In French, students of the same ability saw results rise from a low D grade to a B. In maths, marks were inflated by 3.5 grades. Average students in the 1988 sample gained a U (ungraded) but saw results rise to a low B by 2007. Academics said rises in GCSE results were more modest, increasing by less than a grade in science, English, history, French and maths between 1996 and last summer. "The quality of work presented for examination may well be equal to or better than that of candidates in previous years," said the study. "However, given identical conditions, today's candidates might nevertheless be unable to match the performance of their predecessors."

The IoD report also warned that university admissions tutors have seen no rise in the quality of new undergraduates, despite steadily improving A-level results in the past decade. Seven in 10 tutors believe standards either stayed the same or deteriorated in recent years.

The conclusions come as Ofqual, England's new exams regulator, said it would launch a major review of standards in the Autumn. The study will cover setting, marking and long term standards in A-levels, GCSEs, Sats and other school examinations.

Nick Gibb, Tory shadow schools minister, said A-levels lacked "rigour and relevance". "The Government has been undermining A-levels for the last few years," he said. "We are determined to restore public confidence in the A-level as the gold standard of British education."

A spokesman for the Department for Children, Schools and Families said syllabuses and examinations were "appropriate and reliable". "We've commented on Durham University's research time and time again," she said. "Their work is quite different to GCSE or A-level as it uses aptitude tests which are not directly comparable to performance at GCSE and A level."

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Tell-all report cards to rate Australian schools

Surprising sense from a Leftist

The Rudd Government is on a collision course with Morris Iemma and teachers' unions who say its push for transparent report cards that identify test results, class sizes, teacher qualifications and even the wealth of students' families will lead to unfair school league tables. The federal Minister for Education, Julia Gillard - having met the chancellor of schools in New York, Joel Klein - says Australia can learn from his methodology of "comparing like schools with like schools to measure differences in school results". A former lawyer criticised for his lack of education credentials, Mr Klein has stirred the ire of New York teachers with his focus on standardised testing and links between student results and teacher performance.

Ms Gillard has distanced herself from criticism from the NSW Government and teaching unions who warn her approach will name and shame disadvantaged schools. Rather, Ms Gillard said yesterday, teaching excellence should be identified and rewarded and high standards expected of all students, rich or poor. "We're not talking about anything as simplistic and silly as league tables," she said at the Australian Council for Educational Research annual conference. "But we are talking about parents and the community understanding what kinds of students are in schools, their socio-economic status, the number of indigenous students, the number of students with disabilities, because that obviously means the schools have special needs."

Researchers have linked low performance at school to social disadvantage, with less able richer children overtaking more able poorer children by the age of six. Apart from investing in early learning and rewarding quality teaching, Ms Gillard said a spotlight was needed on schools needing extra help. "The aim should be to robustly ascertain what mix of capacities and needs children are bringing to their school," she said. "We need this information in order to understand what schools, in turn, should offer to these students, and how governments and communities working together can support schools to do so.

"As a nation, we should then be tracking attainment, knowing that we are in the powerful position of comparing like schools with like schools. If two schools have comparable school populations but widely varying results, we would be able to ask the question why and ascertain the answer. "We should be able to identify best practice and innovation, and work systematically to ensure that they are spread more widely. We should be able to especially assist those schools that need it. Specifically we should be identifying excellent teaching and excellent school leadership. We must expect high standards of every child."

However, a spokesman for the acting NSW Minister for Education, John Hatzistergos, said enough information was already available to help identify struggling students in need of help. "There is considerable concern with proposals to excessively 'tag' students and schools with various labels for little purpose," he said. "NSW is responsible for the welfare and education of its students and is committed to the constructive application of the outcomes of assessment in all its forms."

The Premier, Morris Iemma, said it would be difficult to rank schools around Australia. "It's like hospitals; it's the rules around that [ranking], because if you're going to stand in a hospital - and it's a similar example with schools - like Westmead and compare it, for example, with a small district hospital, like Canterbury, and then attempt in some way from the straight statistics that appear on that list to rank those two hospitals, you would not be comparing like with like."

The president of the Australian Education Union, Angelo Gavrielatos, said the learning priorities of students would not be addressed by a "divisive sideshow on league tables". "Raising overall student performance and addressing underachievement requires investment," he said. "Teachers know it and parents know it. "Public schools nationwide require an immediate $1.4 billion per annum to raise retention rates to 90 per cent and a further $1.3 billion per annum to ensure that all primary school-age children reach the minimum benchmark scores for literacy and numeracy."

The principal of SCEGGS Darlinghurst, Jenny Allum, said students in years 3, 5, 7 and 9 had completed the first round of national literacy and numeracy tests in May, but no results had yet been made available to help schools diagnose any learning difficulties in students.

The federal Opposition's education spokesman, Tony Smith, said: "Already Julia Gillard has failed the first test in refusing to release the individual results of the national literacy and numeracy tests until the end of this year. The whole reason the Coalition government introduced these tests was to provide parents and schools with information in a timely fashion so parents could get help straightaway."

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