Still too busy to post anything too substantial, but since this year’s A-level results are out next week – with the consequent scramble for University places – I thought I’d take a few minutes to share this graph (taken from an article on the BBC website) which shows the steady
dumbing-down improvement of educational standards student performance over the last few decades.
Nowadays, on average, about 27 per cent of students taking an A-level get a grade A. When I took mine (in 1981, if you must ask) the fraction getting an A was about 9%. It’s scary to think that I belong to a generation that must be so much less intelligent than the current one. Or could it be – dare I say it? – that A-level examinations might be getting easier?
Looking at the graph makes it clear that something happened around the mid-1980s that initiated an almost linear growth in the percentage of A-grades. I don’t know what will happen when the results come out next week, but it’s a reasonably safe bet that the trend will continue.
I can’t speak for other subjects, but there’s no question whatsoever that the level of achievement needed to get an A-grade in mathematics is much lower now than it was in the past. This has been proven over and over again. A few years ago, an article in the Times Higher discussed the evidence, including an analysis of the performance of new students on a diagnostic mathematics test they had to take on entering University. The same test, covering basic algebra, trigonometry and calculus, had been administered every year so provided a good diagnostic of real mathematical ability that could be compared with the A-level grades achieved by the students. They found, among other things, that students entering university with a grade B in mathematics in 1999 performed at about the same level as students in 1991 who had failed mathematics A-level.
The steadily decreasing level of mathematical training students receive in schools poses great problems not only for mathematics courses, but also for subjects like physics. We have to devote so much more time on the physics equivalent of “basic training” that we struggle to cover all the physics we should be covering in a degree program. Thus the dumbing down of A-levels leads to pressure to dumb down degrees too.
That brings me to the prospect of huge cuts – up to 35% if the stories are true – in government funding for universities, leading to pressure to shorten the traditional three-year Bachelors degree to one that takes only two years to complete. If this goes ahead it won’t be long before a student can get a degree by achieving the same level of knowledge as would have been displayed by an A-level student 30 years ago. Are we supposed to call this progress?
Or perhaps this business about two year degrees all really does make sense. Maybe we should just accept that universities have to offer such courses because the school system has become broken beyond repair over the last 30 years, and it will be up to certain Higher Education institutions from now on to do the job that school sixth-forms used to do, i.e. teach A-levels.