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Media Studies? No thanks!

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The Guardian published an article some time ago confirming many people’s prejudices about A levels. Some are worth more than others, not just in the sense of getting you into good universities, but in terms of difficulty and rigour.

This student may have poor taste in pens.

Be careful what you work for

The problem with this is twofold. Obviously A levels should be comparable qualifications. However, subtler and far more important is the impact on equality. If you go to a good school and have a knowledgeable family then you’ll probably be aware of the reputations of the subjects and can make an informed choice. For those in more disadvantaged positions this is not the case. Law A level is a classic example. It is widely regarded as a joke subject or (non-preferred A level if you’re being polite), but I have heard a number of young people say they wanted to become lawyers so they took A level law. It is entirely logical to do so and also entirely self-defeating.

The pernicious influence of league tables* adds to the problem. By rating schools according to their results they create a strong incentive for schools to push their students into easier subjects. Inevitably the ones who suffer most from this will be the disadvantaged children who don’t have the benefit of well-informed parents. It is a classical problem of differing incentives. The school’s main incentive is to boost its results and for that purpose easy A levels are best. For a level candidates the goal is probably to get into the best university they can, and for that doing media studies is very unlikely to be in their interest.

In theory it should be reasonably easy to solve the problem. Unfortunately, in practice it’s much more difficult. Firstly you would have to overcome political inertia. It is not in the government’s interests to admit that different subjects are easier or harder. Any admission would result in a barrage of criticism from teachers, upset parents and the opposition. If this could be dealt with there would still be the question of how to do it. Either easy exams become harder or hard exams become easier (or both). Call me a cynic, but if the government has a choice between seeing tens of thousands of people do much worse than expected and tens of thousands of people doing better than expected, they’ll choose the one that doesn’t result in crying teenage girls** on television.

So, we get even more grade inflation, the government celebrates its achievements in ‘raising standards’ and making sure that all subjects are equal. Grade inflation is, of course, the other big problem with the UK’s exam system.

Exams are meant to measure absolute and relative achievement, grade inflation interferes with both. It has two possible causes, students might be getting better at exams/smarter or exams might be getting easier. It isn’t implausible that teaching is getting better (I doubt students are inherently smarter), and I’m wary of saying exams are getting easier – after all I’d expect them to seem easier to me given that I’ve already studied the subjects and in several cases done them at university level. However, given complaints from university lecturers about insufficiently prepared students and a bit of gut instinct, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to think that the improvement in grades cannot be accounted for by better teaching.

I personally experienced one example of falling standards due to the oddities of my own experience with A level maths. The year I took it, you had to do three pure maths modules (P1, P2 and P3) in addition to three applied maths modules. The year after, the syllabus was changed to four ‘core’ maths modules (C1, C2, C3 and C4) along with two applied modules. There was no significant difference between the four core and the three pure modules. So, maybe no fall in absolute standards, but it meant that you did one less applied maths module, reducing the content of the A level by almost 20%.

The government recognises the problem of grade inflation, and has tried to deal with it by introducing the A* grade for A levels. In my opinion this is the wrong tactic. It fails to address any of the underlying issues, and in fact A*s are now suffering from grade inflation too. If the system is debased too far then you need to move to a new system, either of exams or grades.

One solution would be to simply grade by percentages – give the best 10% of candidates As and so on. This removes any incentive to make exams easier. Effectively the number receiving each grade is fixed by the total number of candidates. However, what this system lacks is the ability to reliably show absolute achievement. It makes it much harder to tell whether the exams are getting easier or harder. It’s all very well to know that someone is better than 90% of their peers at German, but that tells you nothing about whether they can actually speak the language. The other big problem is that even if you make the exams equally difficult, if weaker students tend to take a particular exam then you have an incentive to take that one to improve your grades.

So, that leaves completely re-jigging the exam system. I think that if you want to deal with both grade inflation and some exams being easier than others this is the only politically viable solution. The next question is what should it be replaced with? Basically, I think the choice is between an A levels+ system or a baccalaureate.

By A levels+ I mean a restart of our current system, with students taking only three or four specialist subjects . A baccalaureate on the other hand would involve a wider range of subjects and would include some compulsory topics such as English and a foreign language (good luck on that since the government removed compulsory foreign languages from the school curriculum). Arguments can be made both ways, and frankly I’ve written enough for today.

*League tables are not  actually a bad idea and providing parents with more information can only be a good thing. It is only in this particular respect that I object to them.

**As the link shows, the UK media’s rather excessive interest in hot teenage girls on exam results day is a well documented phenomenon.


Written by Confused Politics

November 12, 2011 at 5:59 pm

Posted in Politics

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