A Conversation for AS Exams

"Dumbing Down"

Post 1

Bright Blue Shorts

I thought I would start a little convo here about whether "A" levels have been dumbed down. It sort of follows on from what was discussed on the PR thread.

It seems to me that we have an increase in the "A" level grades, year in, year out. I suggest some possible mechanisms and am interested to know what people think:

1) The exams have been running for a number of years and teachers are probably more acquainted with the types of questions that come up, so they can teach towards those. Hence the pupils only learn what they need to learn for the exam. I don't know for sure, just wondering ...
2) *Maybe* the exams have become easier. This is just a hypothesis, so don't jump on my back, give me your opinion based on fact.
3) As per any subject, as time goes on knowledge becomes more widespread. Ie 80 years ago only a few people understood the theory of relativity, now many millions do. Todays A level standards are tomorrow's GCSE standard.
4) Kids today are bright and better at learning, so they pick things up easier and therefore score higher in the exams.

Your comments please ...

BBS smiley - smiley

"Dumbing Down"

Post 2

Pete, never to have a time-specific nick again (Keeper of Disambiguating Semicolons) - Born in the Year of the Lab Rat

1) This was true with the old system. The new system is unknown - only those people who did (or taught for) the exams in January know what they're like. There will have been some exams which weren't done then, so only the people who created them know what they're like. Thus, for example, my college's Maths support person wasn't able to help with mechanics revision, because she had been teaching statistics. Of course, nobody knows what the A2 levels will be like. Also, there are no past papers to practice on. My college resorted to a commercial publisher to obtain practice (ie. pre-mock) exam papers.

2) The maths exams are actually much harder. According to my maths teacher, the average pass rate and grade were much lower in the January exams (held mostly for bright students doing Double Maths, but nominally available to any college that wants them) than in last year's A levels.

I did a mock German listening & writing exam yesterday, and got the results today: I got 82%, which equates to a B grade. The A grade boundary was 90%, the highest I've ever come across for any type of exam. (FYI the maximum mark was 50.)

3) Computing suffers from this. Many people already know most of the syllabus, and I find myself correcting both the teacher and the textbook on regular occasions, so they're sometimes actually inaccurate. Much of this is concerned with outmoded vocabulary. For example, batch processing systems don't exist these days AFAIK, and the term 'multiprogramming' has been more or less superseded by
'multitasking'. (The textbook also talks about 'hackers' as security breakers, but they're not: see my links page. This is a common misconception, and is more forgivable.) They also use software which is Microsoft-oriented and teaches bad habits, which is obviously not a good idea.

4) Er... no comment!

"Dumbing Down"

Post 3


Lower the content and raise the grade boundary seems to be the order of the day. I agree, 90% seems very high.
Grade boundaries used to fluctuate. The boards knew roughly what percentage of people they expected to get each grade, so they didn't decide on the boundary marks until _after_ the papers had been marked.
For example, one year I saw a boundary mark of 65% for an A, but another year it might have been 70%. When the modular scheme was introduced 5 years ago, uniform boundary marks were set for all subjects, of 80% for an A, 70% for a B and so on. The content was reduced, the grade needed was raised.
In a subject support meeting, no information was available about the boundary mark for this year, as the board hadn't decided yet.
smiley - fish

"Dumbing Down"

Post 4

Pete, never to have a time-specific nick again (Keeper of Disambiguating Semicolons) - Born in the Year of the Lab Rat

The universities don't seem to have been briefed very well on the new system.

For example, here's my selection for this year and the next two:

Lower sixth: mostly AS levels, new style.
Computing, predicted A grade; 60 Tariff points.
German, predicted B; 50 pts.
Maths, predicted Bish; 50 pts.
Physics, predicted probably B; 50 pts.
Key Skills in IT, Communications and Number, all Level 3; 20 pts each.

Upper sixth:
Maths A2, predicted grade as above; 50 more points.
German A2, as above; 50 points.
Probably Physics A2, as above, or Philosophy AS, conjectured B; 50 pts.
General Studies A2 (two periods a week), very likely B; 100 pts.

University: Computer Science or Cognitive Science.

These subjects give me a total of 520 points. The universities usually ignore key skills, leaving 460 pts. They only count points from 21 units (three to an AS level, six to an A2), eliminating General Studies (which is also rarely considered), leaving 360 points.

On the face of it, these qualifications would be equivalent to about BBB, plus a bit more. This is about the offer you'd expect from a good university such as Exeter, Essex, or Reading. The 2002 prospectuses (this is apparently the correct plural, BTW) quote between about 200 and 280 points. This seems rather low, doesn't it? Even ignoring the Computing AS level, which, being an extra qualification, biases things a bit, I still have 300 pts.

"Dumbing Down"

Post 5


You're right, of course, the university admissions tutors have no real understanding of the system. This has already been pointed out following investigations by the author of the "Degree Course Offers 2002" book, published next week.
Some are asking for unrealistically high points, like 600, and including the Vocational A levles, Key Skills and General Studies. Others are asking for much lower points, but excluding these. Only 55% of students are taking Key Skills anyway. (Don't get me started on the "dumbing down" of Key Skills. I've been involved in them for a few years too).
Are universities giving equal value to the vocational A levels? (Formerly GNVQ's). Would a distinction Health and Social Care student with another A level (or perhaps 2 A/S levels) stand the same chance of getting into medical school? I somehow doubt this, despite the fact that the points awarded might be the same. Some places will continue to insist on grades from A levels only.
So, there is a split between universities that will accept Curriculum 2000 and those that still insist on trying to keep "old money" qualifications. There is already a split in the teaching of them, with many public schools deciding to retain the linear style examination system at the end of the two years creating a two-tier system. Public school heads say they want to wait and see what happens this year. However it could be so that they can make sure all their students are at peak performance before taking the exams, and thus doing better. This will push the schools up the league tables. Others may decide to opt out of the system and choose the IB instead, further widening the gap between state and private education.
So, already chaos in the government's reform of the system, and the first year not over!
In 2002 there is yet another reform at this level with the introduction of the AE, (Advanced Extension) papers, or "world class tests" as the government would like them to be known. It's possible that some public schools will see these as the return to the "Gold Standard" that A levels used to be, and concentrate on them instead. More chaos ahead!
smiley - fish

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