On the day of my last A-Level exam, Education Secretary Michael Gove stated in an interview with The Times that: “It has become easier to get an A at A-level or GCSE than it used to be, and that’s a problem.”
I would firstly like to congratulate Mr Gove on the fine timing of such a statement, after thousands of youngsters have toiled away to achieve the grades that they required this year (partly in order to avoid the hike in fees that his government has introduced). Mr Gove feels it is his role to tell us that it was all a waste of time and even if we did manage to avoid the £9000-a-year fees, it would not be because of our efforts, but simply because the exams were so easy!
Despite the ill-advised timing of Gove’s comments – which highlight how out-of-touch he is from the students he is meant to be supporting – his views do have some credibility.
The Daily Mail does its utmost to vindicate such comments and show its readers how stupid our generation really are, using examples of the questions we are tested on – for example, a sample biology question which read something like: ‘What does Daniel use to read the board: ear/eye/tongue/nose?’
What the Mail ignores is the fact that such questions are the easiest questions in a GCSE foundation paper in which even a mark of 100% can only result in a C-grade being awarded. What the press also fail to report is how questions do actually get harder as you progress through Sixth Form. This summer, my French A-level paper included an essay question on the themes in Sartre’s “Les Mains Sales”; my History paper one on the successes of Détente after 1970; and my Politics exam a question asking which EU institution is the most significant.
Would the Daily Mail reader considering retaking all of their exams breeze through such questions and achieve an easy clean sweep of A*’s?
Probably not. Although I agree with Gove that it is easier to obtain the top grades today.
The problem of ‘grade inflation’ has not been created by making the exams easier, however, or even by teachers who teach the exam rather than the subject, but by the grade boundaries.
The new A* grade was meant to be for the elite, the top of the top, the Oxbridge geniuses of tomorrow, but is this true in practice?
The problem is that grade boundaries are simply set too low, and it is too easy to get the top grades. Let me highlight one Edexcel course – ‘Government and Politics’ – in which a score of 61/90 results in an A* being awarded. Or the supposed ‘tough subject’, physics, where a mark of 58/80 achieves the top grade. This is the reality of qualifications today. The exams themselves are challenging. Students often leave the hall stressed, disheartened and upset. Yet they discover on results day that they have achieved top grades thanks to how low the grade boundaries have been set.
Resolving the issue of grade boundaries is one part of the answer to a very complex question. It is clear that gradually raising the grade boundaries will reduce the percentage of people with top grades and therefore increase the legitimacy of such qualifications in the eyes of universities and employers.
Leave the exams alone, target the grade boundaries instead.