Subhuti asked: "Is it possible to find perfect
wisdom through reflection or listening to statements or through signs or
attributes, so that one can say 'This is it' or 'Here it
The number of children who pass exams is going up only because exams have been getting easier - and now I believe I can prove it. As the charts on this page demonstrate, pass rates have risen dramatically since the demise of the old O-level in 1987. But I believe last week's GCSE results hide a failure of education. We may find that the science-based world of tomorrow has nobody qualified to run it. In that sense, today's exams are cheating on our children.
A study of exam papers from 1894 shows how much we have lost. A century ago exam papers demanded a lot of facts:
- 'How is nitrous oxide prepared?'
- 'What do we mean by an element?'
- 'Define the term radian.'
In 1894 the pupils needed a good and practical understanding of essentials. Each answer involved depth, as well as knowledge. But the 1994 questions call for much simpler definitions. The level of understanding is now much less. You need little education to give the right answers.
In this year's GCSE exams there is a drawing of the lungs. Inside is mucus. 'What is the job of this mucus?' poses the paper. Go back a century and you find a 'lung' question, too. 'What is the essential nature of a breathing organ?' it said. Here was a chance for children to express their own understanding. 'Describe any special form of it with which you are acquainted,' it added, cheekily.
Children a century ago were highly literate. This was clearly apparent when examiners came to set their papers. They used a level of comprehension beyond the pupil of today. We can measure this objectively. The complexity of a question depends on its length and the words involved. This can be analysed by a computer.
The result is a 'readability index'. There are several in use, and I have put sections of examination papers through a complex program which analyses the text in several different ways. The analysis shows that today's papers are written more simply. Modern examiners know that their candidates aren't up to the standards of an earlier age.
Today's exam papers are a good ten per cent simpler to read than those set before the Second World War. I have included only the high tiers of GCSE papers, meant for the most gifted of today's school-children. There are three levels of GCSE, and the standard of the lowest 'basic tier' is so low it is almost off the scale.
Keeping these facts from the public could cost us our future. A hundred years ago pupils knew where on the map to place Nagasaki - at the time no more than a pretty port on the Japanese coast. Since then it has been marked in history as a victim of atomic war, destroyed in a second by nuclear power. Yet one recent exam in America showed that most modern youngsters had never even heard of it.
In the modern world, foreign powers are smuggling plutonium and terrorists are in the market for small atomic bombs to use in urban warfare. We are faced with acid rain, with global pollution, a mushrooming population, computers that are likely to go wrong, and A CONTRACTING HEALTH SERVICE.
Now more than ever we must have a new breed of scientist who understands the issues and can wrestle with the problems that face us. We need knowledgeable young people who can safeguard our future, not ill-educated children dignified by meaningless exams.
Most normal people could handle today's simple tests. I doubt whether our modern university students could pass the school certificate set to the sixteen-year-olds of 1894!
In the following section I have found questions on similar topics from this year and from 100 years ago. The education and knowledge needed to pass the Victorian exam is far greater than the slight insight that is offered today.
Chalk - calcium carbonate
'Mary has some calcium carbonate and water in a bottle. The calcium carbonate does not dissolve in the water. How could Mary get back some water and dry calcium carbonate?'
COMMENT: How to separate chalk and water? It's an obvious matter requiring no scientific training.
1894 'What is an acid? Give three tests for the presence of an acid. Give equations representing the action, if any, of ... acid on caustic potash and calcium carbonate'
COMMENT: This calls for clear English, an understanding of chemistry, and a knowledge of chemical reactions. Boats 1994
When Bill moored his yacht for the night he found it very hard to sleep because the boat was rocked by waves. Explain why Bill's yacht always returned to the upright position after the passage of a wave.'
COMMENT: The answer is hardly one requiring scientific education.
'On a steamer which is moving with the velocity of 15 miles an hour a man crosses the deck in a direction at right angles to the steamer's motion with a velocity of 10 feet per second. Find his resultant velocity.'
COMMENT: This requires an awareness of unit conversion and the concept of modelling movement as a parallelogram - all good science. Plants
'The diagram shows three plants which are adapted to live in the flowing water of a stream. Mark with an arrow the direction of water movement on each of the plants ...'
COMMENT: Most children of three or four could tell you this.
'A seed is germinated, and the seedling grown in continuous darkness. Describe briefly what will occur, how the experiment will end, and why.'
COMMENT: A delightful question which tests knowledge, intelligence and the ability to write concisely.
'Look at the map of this part of Britain. The average rainfall at Keswick is more than double the average rainfall in Tynemouth. Suggest and explain a reason for this.'
COMMENT: The map is already provided. Only elementary knowledge is tested here, and two lines are provided for the brief answer.
'Give some account (with examples) of the geographical conditions which may give rise to (i) regions of excessive rainfall, (ii) rainless or nearly rainless districts.'
COMMENT: A broad understanding of rainfall and rain shadows is called for in this example, together with a knowledge of climatic zones and continental land-masses."
"Even the dumbest advanced level students will be aware that the standards are dropping and the poorer envious teachers will take every opportunity to remind their bright-eyed students. It's the 18th year that the passes have risen and for the 18year olds who have the coveted grades they need for Uni prepare to have some serious fun."
Source: Reading Evening Post
"Either A-level standards are falling, or we are both geniuses. Everyone insists standards haven't fallen, so we must be brilliant.
"I have been teaching people business studies for more than 15 years. Most of my own students take two or three weeks - it's not like doing, say, a French A-level.
"It is a very, very easy subject.
"And it's not the only A-level you can do briefly - there's also politics and economics.
"But there are so many vested interests in doing A-levels in two years - parents don't want to believe it can be done any quicker, schools don't want them to, and exam boards compete by dropping standards"
"They said I was a mean marker
Examiner Annis Garfield was shocked to find A-level grades were pre-set, despite the poor quality of the entries
'Is it "rude" to observe that a question is badly answered?'
After more than 25 years of marking public exams, most recently A-level English, I thought I understood how the system worked. However, I have been astonished by this year's instructions for marking AS-level classical studies.
I am the examiner, referred to by John Clare in his Any Questions? column last week, who has been told that 26 per cent of the candidates must be awarded a grade A (80 marks out of 100) and that the average candidate is to be given a C (60 out of 100) - no matter how undeserving their answers may be.
This, I have been told by my chief examiner, who accused me of being too mean with my marks, is the predetermined result. He has instructed me to mark more leniently - in other words, to lower my standards.
But where, I asked, was the absolute standard? What was the AS level of attainment that it was the object of this exam to assess? Surely, candidates either reached the required standard or they didn't? Surely, they were good enough for a grade C, say, or they weren't? Wasn't it my job to mark what I found according to a fixed standard?
No, my chief examiner replied, sadly. There was no absolute standard. Standards were relative - relative to the candidates who took the exam. He would never, he added, admit it publicly, but it was so.
One has always known that horse-trading went on in secret when the chief examiners met to decide where exactly the boundaries between the grades lay. However, that was nothing to do with us, the ordinary examiners. Our task ended with the marking of the scripts. How those marks were finally translated into grades was not our business.
Now that I know those grades are predetermined by the board - or is it the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, or perhaps even the Department for Education and Skills? - I am genuinely shocked.
Curiously, none of the other examiners at the meeting where all this came out turned a hair. The reason soon became clear: they were all teaching classical studies at AS level and presumably, therefore, accept current educational standards, or feel there is not much they can do about them. Should teachers be testing their own work?
What, though, of the exam itself? The first disappointment was the candidates' literacy. Ten per cent of the marks are available for clear, logical presentation and correct spelling, punctuation and grammar. It was one of the areas where my chief examiner said I was too mean in my marking.
The average candidate should be getting six per cent, he said. I replied that the average candidate was using limited vocabulary, a sentence structure simple to the point of banality and sentences without main verbs. There were no capital letters and few full stops; commas were sprinkled at random, similarly apostrophes; and the average candidate's spelling was poor and deserved no more than two marks out of the five available.
As a typical example, I pointed to: "and its like phedras an innosent porn" (which means: Phedra is an innocent pawn), to which I had given one mark out of five. My chief examiner said that, compared with other efforts, it was not bad and, therefore, I was to mark it up to three out of five - a clear example of how the worsening quality of candidates drives standards ever lower.
The candidates had only one essay to write. The following is typical of what they said about the character of Electra: "and yes electra like fixed on her fathers murder, still a virgin & not getting any from the peasent". This means: Electra is obsessed with her father's murder; she is still a virgin and not having sex with the peasant, her husband.
I took that to be the candidate's explanation for Electra's miserable state. Does it deserve many marks? According to my marking instructions, such a limited, ignorant answer should be awarded a C or a D grade - which would, of course, contribute to an apparently plausible university application. No wonder AS-levels have little credibility.
'Is it "rude" to observe that a question is badly answered?'
THE instructions we received from the chief examiner in English at A2 level were clear. "Be as generous as possible," he said. "If a script is borderline, put it in the band above. If in doubt, award the candidate the extra mark." That is how grade inflation has come to be built into the process.
Perhaps even more significant is the climate in which we mark. It is set by the decision first implemented two years ago to make photocopies of the marked scripts available to schools that ask for them.
At a meeting for new examiners, we were sternly warned against marking frankly and using honest expressions. "Our audience is the lawyer," the principal examiner explained.
An examiner's judgment was being challenged in the courts, we were told. The examiner had written "Evidence?" against a paragraph of script. It would be argued that the evidence was there but the examiner had failed to spot it, and that demonstrated negligence.
So we were issued with standard phrases and urged to stick to them at all costs. We could indicate that a question had been well answered, but were forbidden to say it had been badly answered. Crosses in the margin would be seen as "rude". Wavy lines to show that an error had been made were banned. The principle was to mark positively.
No wonder grades go up every year. No wonder, too, that we were warned not to communicate with the media.
Charles Lewis is a pseudonym."
Source: Daily Telegraph 26.06.02
Remember: with ONE exam board there would be no problems with comparisons. With ONE exam board it would be easier to monitor standards.
"How exams are dumbing down
The moment of truth came when the class of '97 turned over their examination papers and started to read the questions.
'Give an account of the position and general structure of the liver. Where does most of the blood supplying the liver come from, and under what circumstances and in what manner does this blood vary in composition?' 'Draw a map of the West Coast of England and Wales, naming the counties on the coast and the principal capes and inlets. Mark the positions of Aberystwyth, Cardiff, Carlisle, Chester, Holyhead, Ilfracombe, Preston, Southport, and Swansea.'
'Determine by a geometrical construction the force which, together with a number of given forces, will keep a particle in equilibrium ...'
That's enough to tax the most agile mind. Could you answer these questions? Could your children? These are typical of the examinations that 16-year-old children took in their stride. Not our children, mind you; these questions are not from the 1997 GCSE's. They come from the School Certificate exams in 1897 - a century ago.
Are examinations as tough as they were? Employers and parents insist they are not. Educationalists claim that they are. The issue can only be resolved by looking back to the exam papers of the past. Today's GCSE is descended from the first school examinations, which were set by the Cambridge Board in 1858. For this first year the pupils sat the exams at the age of 15, but it was soon raised to 16, the age at which the exams are still taken today.
As disappointed employers know, educationists always justify the fall in standards. A question in the first-ever School Certificate exam asked: 'Draw a map of Great Britain, marking the principal rivers.' That, of course, must be because they didn't have photocopiers. These days children have printed maps, and (in the age of the motorway) are far more widely travelled.
That excuse doesn't work. Here's another question in the 1858 exam: 'Describe in words the coast-line of England from the mouth of the Thames to the mouth of the Severn.' Perhaps today's youngsters are more European in their outlook, and don't need to know so much about Britain. That sounds feasible until you read the next question from the mid-Victorian exam:
'Draw an outline map, showing the coast-line of Europe from the mouth of the Danube to the mouth of the Rhine; and mark the chief rivers and the chief ranges of mountains between those two rivers and the coast.'
In truth, yesterday's school children were expected to know far more about Europe than we do today. Few modern youngsters know where are the capitals of Europe. As today's teenager: 'Where's Brussels?' and you'd probably be told: 'In the fridge, next to the parsnips.'
A question from this year's Southern Examining Group GCSE paper on Modular Mathematics (Intermediate Money Management) begins:
'Polly receives 600 Christmas cards from a charity. She sells ¾ of them at work. How many cards does Polly sell at work? Polly sells these cards to 25 workers. How many cards does each person buy?'
Nobody doubts that young people need to know how to divide up resources, so the question is certainly relevant. Now, step back fifty years. The School Certificate paper for July 1947 posed a similar test:
'In forming its annual budget, an Urban District Council allows for the costs of (a) services provided by itself, (b) services provided by the County Council, and (c) services provided by other authorities. If (a), (b), (c) are in the ratio of 7:15:2 and the cost of (a) is £427,000, find the costs of (b) and (c) and the total amount of the budget.'
The 1997 test calls for simple division, and is the kind of calculation a ten-year-old could perform. The 1947 question demands a far more solid grasp of mathematics, and candidates had to understand how to adapt their understanding to solve complex problems.
And there is a subtler point too - the question of childhood aspirations. The question about a local authority's budget from fifty years ago implies that the children might grow up to be, what, councillors? Company directors? House-holders with an eye to what the council is doing? This year's question about Polly selling charity cards on the factory floor is not much of a target at which to aim. Why not feature questions about Polly the merchant banker or professor, the Concorde pilot or film director?
The world of business is poorly served by modern school examinations. Here's a typical example from this year's GCSE:
'A bike is on sale for £260 at a local shop, Dynamics. Dynamics bought the mountain bike from a wholesaler for £232. What is the percentage profit that Dynamics makes when it sells the mountain bike?'
The question in the 1947 paper was far closer to the complexities of business:
'During 1945 a manufacturer produced 3600 articles at a cost of 1s 8d each and sold them for 2s 6d each. In 1946 he produced twice as many articles and reduced the selling price of each by 20 per cent. If the ratio of the total profit in 1946 to that of 1945 was 7:3, find the percentage by which the cost of manufacturing each article was reduced. [Answer correct to 3 significant figures].'
The 1997 paper calls for a simple understanding of percentage profit, but fifty years ago this concept was applied to a far more complex situation. Last week I bought four electric lamps at 40p each. The young man who served me added them all up, '40p plus 40p plus 40p', on his calculator. I would hope that a five-year-old could perform that as mental arithmetic without difficulty.
Children usually love going to the infants', and most of them seem to adore primary school, too. By the time they are stuck in modern Comprehensives, where league tables and high pass rates are all that matters, the joy is snatched away. Many modern children emerge disinterested and dull. The chance to empower them and educate their minds has been lost.
Neglect the physical development of a child, and you can be in trouble from the authorities. Starve a child of nourishment and you can be taken to court. Abuse a child and the police can intervene.
Somehow, it is still acceptable to ignore nourishing the brain. You can starve a youngster of mental stimulation and get away with it. We are losing a generation of children. To my mind, that's the worse abuse of all.
Brian J Ford's best-selling book 'Cult of the Expert' predicted a lowering of exam standards. He is a Member of Council at the Institute of Biology in London, the Society for the Application of Research in Cambridge, and the McCrone Research Institute in Chicago.
"I've just done my AS and my Latin teacher said that the standard of the paper was just below that of her O-level standard papers. Indeed when I look back at the A-Level papers from the 80s they are much more difficult than the A-Level papers have been in the past couple of years."
Source: The Guardian:
"An urgent government inquiry has been ordered into exam "grade inflation" following damaging claims last week that exam boards have systematically reduced pass marks in GCSE maths in order to produce better results.
The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority has asked the OCR board (the merged Oxford, Cambridge and RSA boards) to investigate claims by former examiner Jeffrey Robinson that the latest rise in pass rates was the result of exam bodies reducing pass thresholds, rather than of children getting brighter or work ing harder. The findings of the inquiry will be used by the QCA for broader scrutiny of GCSE exam standards.
"The former chief inspector of schools in England, Chris Woodhead, called for a review of the A-level exams.
"I think one has to ask whether the A-levels this year are as intellectually vigorous as they were 10, 15, 20 years ago," he said.
He said that if everyone passed an examination it was not fulfilling it's prime function of discriminating between them.
"An international expert panel has said there is no way of being sure that the standard of A-levels has been maintained over the years. And it said examiners might have enabled "grade inflation" to happen without meaning to.
"Anyone who even passed (possibly even failed) A Levels 30 years ago would have walked out with strings of As now."
"Not for the first time the head of policy at the Institute of Directors, Ruth Lea, was sceptical.
"It's grade inflation all round, I don't think there's any doubt about that," she said.
"We congratulate students for their success and hard work but, from an employer's point of view, the A-level now is not the A-level of 20 years ago. "I just wish people could concede this point and move on because we have this sterile debate every year."
When CONE is adopted it will be easier to maintain exam standards
Have exam standards fallen - You judge!