back to article GCSE, A-level science exams ARE dumbed down - watchdog

Questions expecting short answers and the use of multiple choice have made biology and chemistry exams easier in the UK, according to assessment assessor Ofqual. The examinations watchdog analysed GCSE and A-level exams for the two science subjects - comparing papers taken by thousands of youngsters between 2003 and 2008 - and …

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  1. Arnold Lieberman

    On a brighter note

    My son's school is planning to introduce GCSE Computer Science into the curriculum form September, that is assuming enough pupils want to take up the option. Might have to get out my Acorn Electron from the loft during the summer hols...

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: On a brighter note

      You mean they are going to teach them how to use a spreadsheet and a word processor?

      1. hplasm Silver badge
        Meh

        Re: You mean...

        Not at all-

        Q1. Draw an Acorn atom, labelling the screen and keyboard (85 marks)

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: You mean...

          > Q1. Draw an Acorn atom, labelling the screen and keyboard (85 marks)

          Draw it using pen and paper or Microsoft Paint?

          1. Code Monkey
            Trollface

            Re: You mean...

            @Condiment

            "Draw it using pen and paper or Microsoft Paint?"

            c) Google Images

      2. bitmap animal

        Re: On a brighter note

        Learning how to use a spreadsheet is the current ICT course.

        The CS A level is much more like the Computer Studies I did 25 years ago and I presume the GCSE is too.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: On a brighter note

          Speaking as a candidate on the GCSE choose for computing. I nearly blew my top when exam papers discard the zeroth index in arrays!

          But apart from that, I've found the course to be MUCH better compared to the current IT curriculum, where I contemplate the slow murder of my teacher, when she asks for the tenth time, how do we copy folders/move folders. For giggles, sometimes I respond with the Linux. Last time I try to explain what a "Linux" is. :P

      3. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: On a brighter note

        @AC "...You mean they are going to teach them how to use a spreadsheet and a word processor?..."

        You demonstrate perfectly the problem with people commenting about eduction who have no idea about how the system works:

        ICT = Wordprocessors, spreadsheets, general operation of computers and the internet etc.

        Computer Science = Computer Science.

        Neither are intended to be the other, they fulfill their own purposes.

        1. Minophis
          Unhappy

          Re: On a brighter note

          "ICT = Wordprocessors, spreadsheets, general operation of computers and the internet etc."

          It would save confusion if they just renamed it 'basic secretarial skills', in this case very basic..

          1. Anonymous Coward
            Anonymous Coward

            Re: On a brighter note

            I'm pretty bloody glad I've got basic secretarial skills then, because, call it ICT or typing class, it's bloody useful in my day to day life at work and at home.

            Secretary is not an insult.

            1. M man

              Re: On a brighter note

              Except they dont tech yo type proply in ICT

            2. Ken Hagan Gold badge

              Re: Secretary is not an insult

              I doubt it was meant to be. I took the original comment simply to mean "Call stuff what it is using plain English". Good advice, even in the 21st century, but rarely taken to heart by politicians tinkering with the system.

            3. spegru

              Re: On a brighter note

              just who is it that has secretary these days

            4. mittfh

              Re: On a brighter note

              It's been dressed up as all kinds of imaginatively titled qualifications over the years, including CLAIT (Computer Literacy and Information Technology) and the ECDL (European Computer Driving Licence).

              Erm, since when were computers classified as roadworthy vehicles? CLAIT in particular evolved from secretarial / office courses, and like them the next level up was IBT (Integrated Business Technology), which was all about creating databases, querying them, plugging the query results into spreadsheets, creating pretty graphs, then inserting the graphs into a written report.

              To be slightly fairer, many contemporary courses include use of other software e.g. graphics / animation packages, but the first unit (which is likely to take up a fair amount of Year 10) will be the office skills. A tiny part of what we'd regard as Computer Science is lumped into the Design & Technology curriculum as "Control Systems" (e.g. writing a simple greenhouse monitoring system that opens the vents above a certain temperature, turns on heaters below a certain temperature, waters the plants when they get dry... essentially a whole bunch of pseudo-code "if...then...else" )

              Whatever happened to the days when pupils were taught programming (of sorts) from lower primary in the form of LOGO?

              TO CIRCLE (well, a Trictohexacontagon, to be precise)

              REPEAT 360 [FD 1 LT 1]

              END

        2. JohnG Silver badge

          ICT

          ICT could also be Intra Corporate Transfer, this being the type of visa used to bring mostly Indian IT workers into the UK, such that those locals who have taken Computer Science GCSE but have no experience will be going straight on the Dole.

      4. Crisp Silver badge

        Re: On a brighter note

        They'd need to teach them how to type first.

        The amount of people that claim to know how to use a computer that I see finger pecking away at the keyboard both irritates and angers me.

        1. Blitterbug
          Meh

          Re: Finger Peck

          I 'finger peck' at ~ 30 - 40 wpm (used to be faster), which does me just fine. Fast 'finger peckers' (ooer) use between 2 and 4 fingers and do not do the cliched 'hunt-and-peck' so beloved of the typing snobs. My eldest lad hacks away at around 60 or 70 easily, a speed I never believed possible without 'proper' multi-fingered typing, yet he does it. I find keyboard snobbery so irritating.

    2. h4rm0ny

      Re: On a brighter note

      That's not a brighter note. I could have got a nice bonus from the government if I was willing to become an ICT teacher (I had applied for Mathematics, though in the end I went back into private industry for the money). But I did not want to be an ICT teacher because I think the subject is a very bad idea. Teach children decent language skills, teach them maths, teach them history. Don't teach them word processors, spreadsheets and Wikipedia. So many children are lacking the fundamentals that teaching the tools to use those fundamentals is ridiculous. You can learn how to use Word in an afternoon, Excel in a couple of days. If you need to. It takes longer than that for a child to learn algebra however. So focus on that.

      And I'm speaking as someone who has programmed professionally, on and off, for over a decade. Keep programming at university level where it can be taught properly. Make spreadsheets and word processors some optional (and short) vocational certificate to put it back in its place. And spend the time showing school children how to write, to perform mathematics and a bit of history. Actually a lot of history. Our politicians would get away with less if more people knew their history.

  2. Captain Hogwash Silver badge
    Facepalm

    Exams getting easier

    Who knew?

  3. JetSetJim Silver badge
    Childcatcher

    About bliddy time

    In my school we practised for the exams by doing past papers - they were invariably much harder as you went back further in time (I think we had about 10 years worth).

    Bring back log tables.

    ....and the birch

    1. pauly
      Childcatcher

      Re: About bliddy time

      @JetSetJim, Completely agree - for A level maths i took in 92, we went back to about 1980. The questions back then were so hard in comparison, i'd never have even passed if i was given a paper from back then. IThe paper i took was appreciably the easiest i'd ever seen and that was 20 years ago. I got a C which i believe would have been more than 50%. I wonder what you have to get now for each grade, and I'd like to see past papers from then till now.

      1. David Hicks
        Flame

        Re: About bliddy time

        Agreed here too. Took A-levels in 95 and 96, practicing on past papers got harder the further back you went. Same with GCSE's two years prior.

        Given that everyone I know that's involved in education laments falling standards, that the universities often go on records saying that standards are falling, yet somehow (!?) average grades just keep getting better and better... yeah, we have a problem.

        It's an irritation to me that every time people try to discuss this when the results come out, they get shouted down as just wanting to belittle the hard work that's gone in to it all and puff themselves up with declarations about how hard their personal challenge was. It's really not the case at all. My personal challenge wasn't all that hard back then and it sounds like it would be even easier now.

        1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

          Re: wanting to belittle the hard work

          The irony is that it's easy exams that belittle hard work, since no matter how hard to work or how well you do, the best you can leave school with is a certificate that is demonstrably worth less than the one your parents got.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: About bliddy time

        I call nonsense, we did Maths A level papers dating from 95 right back to the 60s and the content barely differed. We did so many because I was one of those 'Maths/Further Maths/Statistics' guys - yes, I have 3 Maths A levels, plus an S level in Maths*. If there was a past paper to do, we did it.

        Almost all of the A level Maths papers I have are of the format "Answer 3 from 6", the questions are long and don't provide 'Noddy context' that allows you to answer step by step. I also encountered many questions from the 60s papers in the 90s exams.

      3. JetSetJim Silver badge

        Re pauly: About bliddy time

        A fellow classmate of '92 here. I did maths and suckered up for the additional punishment of further maths before going on to Uni for a degree in the subject. In the first year of uni, the biggest class was "remedial maths" to teach all the incoming engineering students the maths they should have studied at school (even at that point, maths was not a requirement to do engineering!). This course was 9am on Mon/Wed/Fri with compulsory coursework to hand in to your tutor. I still get a smug glow in me knowing I handed in all the coursework after a long weekend near the start of the first term (much to my tutor's surprise) and then got a lie-in for the rest of the year on those days.

      4. badger31

        Re: About bliddy time

        Just a thought ...

        Could the exams getting harder, as you looked further back in time, be because the curriculum has changed over the years and you were taught different things than they were back then? I can't help thinking that if you took a paper from today and sent it ten years back in time, the children would (have) be(en) thinking "blimey, exams are hard in the future. I don't know hardly any of that stuff."

    2. Anonymous Coward 15
      Joke

      Luxury!

      We had one abacus between us, and that had half the beads missing.

    3. FartingHippo
      Headmaster

      Re: About bliddy time

      Anyone with 10% of a brain can see grade inflation for what it is: the government's desire not to be tarred with the brush marked "failing our children". Because sure as shit smells, teaching didn't get better that quickly, and nor did our kids get brighter.

      So, you either mark more generously, set easier questions, or have combination of the two.

      However if you want to see denial and delusion on a truly epic and utterly depressing scale, just pop over to The Guardian article on the topic, and skim through the comments.

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Well, questions may be getting easier, but when I recently marked one of my son's practice papers for Physics GCSE (think it was the 2nd paperso not the 3rd paper which is the "hard physicsy one" to quote his revision guide) I was at first a bit disappointed at the number of questions he got wrong and how he'd only end up with something like 2/3rs of the marks ... however I was then shocked when I switched over to look at the marking guide to find that his mark was 2 marks above the A/A* boundary ... and I think you could get a B with less than 50% of the marks.

    1. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge

      2/3rd marks

      At the beginning of the 90s you needed ~70% for an A. So that sounds consistent.

      1. Jedit
        FAIL

        Re: 2/3rd marks

        Seems like you took your Maths exam in recent years. According to the original poster a score of roughly 66% was two marks *above* the boundary for A*. So where 20 years ago you needed 70% just for an A, you now get the grade above A for between 60 and 65%. That's not consistent at all.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      No surprise...

      I did Biology GCSE 17 years ago and got a B. I know for a fact I could not have got more than 46% since I only answered 46 points-worth of questions out of the 100 available.

      Aren't bell-curve adjustments wonderful?!

  5. jabuzz
    Facepalm

    Need to go back further

    I would say that by 2000, A level physics had around a quarter of the syllabus cut from a decade earlier when I took it; easier to know less to a higher standard if you ask me. In addition the multiple choice had gone from A-E to A-D; an immediate improvement for anything you need to guess at. Finally the written paper rather than have a scenario and a number of things you needed to calculate had become a fill in booklet with all the intermediate steps layed out for you; makes life much easier. I cannot speak for other exams by A level physics as definitely much easier by 2000.

    Exams have got easier and rather than it being disingenuous to hard working students to day to belittle their work, it is disingenuous to students in the past to suggest they where lazy and not that the exams are easier.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Need to go back further

      The problem is that today you can not tell the hard working/clever students from the lazy/stupid ones because the exams they take are unable to distinguish between them.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Further anecdotal evidence

    My dad's a private chemistry tutor and has railed against the exam boards for a decade. He feels that Edexcel has made some improvement in the last few years, having taken on an amount of the Nuffield syllabus, but a number of the others are a joke.

    It's just so unfair to let this grade circus continue. If there's no rigour in the syllabus, then what kind of student will result?

    Having studied chem eng myself (and fled to IT), a major concern with sending my son to a state school is that they'll be compromising on both the syllabus and the exam (i.e. double science "award" rather than individual subjects). With the alternative being a cool £15+k/yr that guarantees little other than the fact that we'll be working so hard to keep up we won't be able to give them our full attention, I'm not entirely pleased!

    I know from my own experience that parents play a *big* part in attitudes and achievements, further reducing my appetite for an extended period of penury because they're at a private school.

    We've got a few years until we need to face that issue as the first little 'un only starts at primary in Sept, but it's at the back of my mind...

    1. bitmap animal
      Thumb Up

      Re: Further anecdotal evidence

      Parenting and the support and goals you give your child does play a massive part in education. Some (many??) state schools are fantastic, but quite a few are poor. That is compounded by a lot of children not caring about their education and so are disruptive which affects other kids in the class. IMHO due the demise of 11+ and streaming the brighter kids have a much greater chance of being dragged down by their surroundings.

      Private schools can not make a child more intelligent, they are not magic. What they can do is give then child the best opportunity to make the most of what they have.

      I'd say that parents who send the children to private schools have a passion and enthusiasm about their kids, the kids are surrounded by hard working parents with a goal. Their normality is hard work and ambition and that gives them confidence.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Further anecdotal evidence

        I'd agree, but if I'm having to find £15+k out of taxed income, I'm going to be spending all my time working and will then have to rely far more on the school to educate my child.

        Also, a few of my dad's students are from very good private schools and were in dire need of help with their Chemistry. There really are no guarantees! You're possibly buying a better demographic and hopefully better facilities and more motivated teachers.

        Why are we in a situation where state schools are practically obliged to go with the easier boards and compromised qualifications in order to inflate their grades to meet government targets? Why am I having to think about this sort of expense when my taxes are supposed to be paying for this already? How much longer do I have to argue like this to sound like a Daily Wail commenter?

      2. David_H
        Stop

        Re: Further anecdotal evidence

        I agree about the demise of the 11+. I was in the first year in Northamptonshire not to sit it and so had to go to the 'new' Comprehensive (the old 'Secondary Modern'). They didn't know what to do with us brainy kids and I spent the next 3 years learning nothing new in Maths and to a lesser extent other subjects. This was an insult not only to me, but the Junior School teachers who had gone out of their way to get me the text books for the 11+ years, even buying some of the books themselves! As we started the fourth year of the Comprehensive, they suddenly realised that they would have to build a sixth form block to house us all in 2 years time - apparently the LEA meetings were interesting!

        Streaming must be done to seperate those who do not feel inclined to study and will disrupt anything, from those who want to work and will do well if they are given the opportunity.

  7. Version 1.0 Silver badge
    Happy

    Grade Inflation

    So I guess my couple of "A"s from the early 70's are now A+++++++++++++ results?

    1. David_H
      Flame

      Re: Grade Inflation

      When University was only for the VERY BEST students I didn't get in, instead studying 4 * HND at Polytechnic. Now 50% get into University and you only have to be slightly above average to get a degree.

      Who gets the job interview? Me, who was not quite the very best, or the young oik who was only average, but got a degree.

      1. mark 63 Silver badge

        Re: Grade Inflation

        The oik

        It ticks boxes " lots of our staff are graduates dont chew know"

        I wish I'd done a bullshit degree in Sociology, Philosophy or Film Studies instead of an HND in Mechanical Electronics.

        I was under the deluded inpression that if you did something Difficult you'd get well rewarded for it.

      2. Version 1.0 Silver badge

        Who gets the job interview?

        My standard interview is very simple - I chat with them, ask them what they've read recently and what they thought about it - then I give them a simple two chip analogue schematic from one of our products and ask them to tell me how it works... it's basically the same interview technique that I received when I applied for (and got) a job at Dolby Labs in the early 70's testing Dolby "A" modules.

        Almost every single applicant fails.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Who gets the job interview?

          Hi,

          Are you looking to hire now ?

          I'd like to go back to doing Electronics instead of IT.

    2. jason 7
      Meh

      Re: Grade Inflation

      My two N grades and dismal E grade in History from 1989 would probably get an A and two B passes now.

      I did really well at O level in 1987 with 8 good passes so it was a bit of a shock.

      I remember my sixth form year only a few kids got A passes at A Level. The rest scraped C and D grades.

      Now I rarely hear of anyone getting lower than a B.

      Is it against the law to let kids experience fail nowadays?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Grade Inflation (Jason 7)

        Not only are the grades supposedly higher they get more or them.

        In the late 70, early 80 when I did O's and A's the typical number of O levels taken was 5-6, with only the very bright trying for 6 or 7.

        Those basic 5-6 O levels would always be Maths, English, History, Geography, and at least one science (Physics, Chemistry or Biology).

        Today the typical GCSE count will be 10-15 GCSE (equivalents) and for the past few years ICT could get the dumb kids the equivalent of 3 or 4!

        Likewise those taking A levels today will typically do 5. Around 1980 maybe ~10% would try for more than 3 as the work load was just too much, and most of those would include something like Pure & Applied Maths, or the equivalent English & Lit.

        1. jason 7

          Re: Grade Inflation (Jason 7)

          Yeah my passes in 1987 were pretty general as I didn't have a clue what I wanted to do after school. -

          Eng Lang

          Maths

          Physics

          Geography

          History

          Computer Studies

          Art

          General Studies (sat at Sixth Form)

          The only two I didn't pass were Eng Lit (D) and Electronics (U) I only did that to avoid doing French or German.

          I cant imagine what else kids would have time to cram in?!

          1. Will Godfrey Silver badge
            Meh

            Re: Grade Inflation (Jason 7)

            Hmmm, if it's that bad maybe I should have just stuck with my 6 1965 O levels, and not bothered with the pain of all the later studies (was advised to skip A levels and go into industry on an apprenticeship).

            Oh and everything was separate in those days none of this 'general science' muck.

      2. MahFL22
        Unhappy

        Re: Grade Inflation

        I did well at O levels, but the A levels were so so much harder, I did not enjoy them at all, cept for the pratical chemistry, at the end of the term I filled the lab up with potassium permanganate purple fumes, infact the ceiling was well stained.

    3. Alex 49

      Re: Grade Inflation

      These days? I think they call that a MSc.

    4. Version 1.0 Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Grade Inflation

      After some reflection I've decided to update my LinkedIn profile to indicate that I have degrees in both Math and Art (my two "A" levels) and 8 modern "A" levels (my "O" level passes).

      This seems only fair.

  8. Lee Dowling Silver badge

    Not shocked, to be honest.

    When I was in school and university (I finished uni in 2000), the physics papers were actually quite easy compared to even the past papers of ten years previous. I'm not saying I did well on everything (especially not physics, actually), but it certainly wasn't because the papers were too hard when I did them. I'd have been embarrassed to suggest that the paper was "too hard" in general, I just struggled with the topic.

    And since I took my own exams, I've worked in lots of schools - state and independent. You honestly do not know the sort of tripe that makes it into an exam paper, and the marking schemes are a joke.

    It reminds me of a cartoon that is in the staffroom of one of the schools I've worked in: Two cartoons, 1990 and 2010. On the 1990 one the parents are shouting at the child in front of the teacher "Explain these poor marks!". On the 2010 one, they are shouting the same thing at the TEACHER while the kid smirks at them. Just about sums things up nowadays.

    My Italian girlfriend (a PhD) laughed at the grading levels for our exams. 50% can get you a B. A's could be had for as little as 60% at some points. That wouldn't wash in a lot of countries. And then we have the cheek to pretend that a UK education is something special when that person then goes to a foreign country. Students actually flocked to us for decades in order to get a degree from the UK. It still goes on but those students are finding out exactly how much that's worth worldwide only when they've wasted years chasing it.

    In one student session she had with biology students in a research lab, she was asked what a neck was. It *wasn't* a miscommunication from poor English. She also despairs over PhD students who can't work out how much to dilute a sample by to get a certain ratio of the active ingredient (a simple cross-multiplication).

    In one school I worked in, *I* took the lunchtime maths courses to bump students up to the next level. I'm an IT Manager. They *all* went up a level after starting the course. It makes you wonder what the teachers were doing with them.

    UK examinations are shot. Unfortunately, going back to what you'd find in even a 1980's paper (let alone the 1960's - which were much harder - but have imperial units in them) would be such a culture shock that NONE of the current students would actually pass with decent grades and half the teachers would quit with the stress of trying to understand that material themselves.

    There's a reason that the independent schools typically have students 3-4 years ahead on achievement over state schools. It has everything to do with proper teaching and qualifications and teaching the things they were teaching in the 70's and 80's and not the watered-down tripe they have now. Hell, most independent schools have already come out against GCSE's etc years ago and wanted to adopt other standards (e.g. International GCSE's etc.).

    Go ask any student who studied somewhere other than the UK (and the US is going the same way but isn't quite as bad). Chances are you needed 90% to get A's, and the material was way above anything we teach here. I can relay stories of friends from Australia, Singapore, Italy, etc. that all experience the same hilarity when they see our actual exam papers and their grading.

    1. dogged

      Timescale

      When did they abolish proportional grading?

      I remember back when I did my A levels - 1988, if you wondered - you needed to be in the top 5% to get an "A". An "A*" did not exist for this reason - if you got an "A" you were really fucking good.

      When did that go away?

      I seem to recall being told that even to score an "E", I'd need a minimum of 55%. What happened to the world?

      1. Omgwtfbbqtime Silver badge
        Headmaster

        Re: Timescale

        I vaguely remember (A levels in 89 so well on the way to Alzheimers...) being told that for Maths A level, due to the marks spread, the gap between B and D was only 4% so if you can grab a few extra marks just by RTFQ you migh be able to bump 2 grades easily.

        Still ended up with a D (though did somewhat better in Phys/Chem BB)

        So definite proportional grading.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Timescale

        They call it normalised grading. It was removed when a Tory politiician worked out that by removing it, more kids could get A's and they'd look really good as a government.

        The Labour Party thought it was so good they kept it.

        I've written to the department of education, my MP, Gove, etc. and they all basically respond with "We are not going to restore normalised grading because MPs like it because it gets them re-elected, and we like it because we're all marxists."

        (Ok. They don't say that, but that's how I see it.)

        It would instantly restore standards, as the feedback loop necessary to keep the grades normalised from year to year, would mean kids were competing with other kids to get good grades, instead of boards competing in the dumbing down race to get more good grades.

        You see what people are up against, in trying to keep a country strong, when the politicos are like this?

      3. J.G.Harston Silver badge

        Re: Timescale

        When I was a school governor I asked something like: how can 80% of our pupils get an A? Surely 15% will get an A, 15% a B, 15% a C, etc. Oh no, as many as possible all have to be in the top 15%.

  9. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    GCSEs no longer fulfil their purpose

    The exams where originally designed to give a measure of a pupils ability in particular subjects. This would help prospective employers/further education institutions determine who was suitable for the post.

    They are now intended solely to give the pupil a sense of achievement and are useless as any form of measure of a persons ability.

    1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

      Re: GCSEs no longer fulfil their purpose

      Unfortunately it's bugger all to do with the pupils. It's down to the school getting the correct number of grades and the Education Department proving* that education is working.

      * Proof in this case is massaging whatever numbers you're saddled with to produce the results that you need.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: GCSEs no longer fulfil their purpose

        Nick you are correct.

        A friend (who is a head teacher) explained the problem to me, and it's so obvious.

        1. Schools are judged by league tables and get punished for being low.

        2. There are about 7 different exam boards in the UK, and all only get paid if they sell their exam papers.

        3. To get the best grades, a school can it will always choose the easiest exams available.

        4. To get the most money for thier papers the exam boards must produce popular papers, and the most popular are the easy ones.

        The simple and cheapest way to stop standards dropping every year would be to have one examination board per subject (producing 2-3 papers a year just in case errors are found and to stop/limit cheating).

        Then all students sit the same exam on the same day at the same time (the paper chosen that morning). Then use a proper distribution (Bell) curve to award the grades so if a paper is easier one year the grades are proportional.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: GCSEs no longer fulfil their purpose

          You're wasting your breath. Yvette Cooper will immediately say "Look at all these kids, and look and all the grade D's. Look what Michael Gove has done to the country."

          I'm thinking of forming a political party whose motto is, "We're going to pass laws to exterminate all the useless people."

        2. Crisp Silver badge

          Re: GCSEs no longer fulfil their purpose

          Why use a Bell curve on just a years results? The class of '91 might be average, the class of '92 might all be geniuses. With a bell curve distribution wouldn't both crops of students appear to be the same?

          1. Ken Hagan Gold badge

            Re: why use a Bell curve on just a year's results

            Because you change the paper each year and you want to compare like with like.

            Yes, both crops end up looking the same, but actually if you're talking about several hundred thousand children you'd need a *lot* of evidence to persuade me that both crops *aren't* the same.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: GCSEs no longer fulfil their purpose

      Every child gets a prize!

      Exams are seen as a meal ticket by ambitious parents. Teachers are obliged to teach for the exam.

      It is the same with degrees, there has been a great deal of grade inflation. Lots more firsts.

      This has little to do with education or understanding a subject.

      It is about social advancement and getting a good job. Educational institutions are now in a competitive market and this has compromised the value of the education they impart.

      Learning, should be life-long and people should be encouraged to teach and improve themselves.

      Instead we cram everything in at the beginning for an educational horserace and career scramble in order to land a cushy job. Then you can put your feet up and let your mind rot.

      It has all gone very wrong.

  10. David_H
    Holmes

    Multi-guess

    My eldest is taking triple science i.e. Physics, Chemistry and Biology as seperate GCSE's and is finishing these in the next few weeks. I never took 'O' level Biology , but did pass 'O' level Chemistry and Physics.

    Anyway as she had full marks (40/40) on every paper so far, and although we praise her generously, I remained curious regarding the difficulty of the exams. So, I took one of her multi-choice GCSE Biology past papers as a test. Now, I will freely admit that I didn't know what half the technical names referred to, but from carefully reading the (leading) questions there was nearly always an obvious answer and I completed it in about 1/3 of the alotted time. And my score - 40/40 obviously! All I needed was a good grasp of English.

  11. Rande Knight
    Facepalm

    The Bell Curve

    It's quite simple. Introduce statistical scaling.

    It means that the difficulty of the exam can vary a little each year, but you'll still get the same level of students getting the same grades. Grade inflation wouldn't be a problem.

    It would be especially useful for university placements as they could more easily pick out the exceptional students.

    I did highschool under this system and it works fine for written exams. It's not as good for practical assessments.

    1. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

      Re: The Bell Curve

      I agree, to a point.

      The problem is that this doesn't lead to equivalency in grading. If, over the course of 10 years, the ability of the students increases, it means an A grade is worth more. Similarly if the abilty goes down it is worth less.

      1. Gordon 10 Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        Re: The Bell Curve

        Yes but whats actually likely to be the biggest variable Ability or the Content of the course/paper.

        I would assume the latter by a significant amount.

        I've also seen the bell curve model work well at Uni. We had a radically different, harder course to the previous years Quantum Mechanics course and to cut a long story short the pass mark dropped to around 35% and a first could be had for about 55% if memory serves, yet the number in each of the grades were roughly the same as compared to the previous year.

      2. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: The Bell Curve

        @DR Mouse - That is exactly why statistical distribution of grades was abandoned - a good year penalised students and a bad year rewards them. Put those two years together and you end up with people from one year not able to get into uni the next, because they were skipped over for places in favour of less able but better graded students from the next year.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: The Bell Curve

      So obvious it isn't true. Been saying it for years.

      Try approaching Ofqual and see where it gets you. You will get an answer along the lines of "I'm sorry, we have staff here who did Media Studies as a degree. What future would our children have if we didn't disguise the fact that they've inherited out useless gene?"

  12. John H Woods Silver badge

    Let's see

    1) Tie the (monetary) success of schools to their grades using league tables etc.

    2) Allow the exam boards to compete with each other so that schools can choose exam boards

    3) Act all surprised at the consequences

  13. D.B.

    Can't resist linking the following.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-10794867

    Never mind about the bbc story, check out the graph they include showing proportion of A grades awarded at A-level each year, from the mid 60's to now. It says a lot.

    1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

      That graph really is telling.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        telling ?

        It's not that telling really, in the 60's and 70's only the top n% could get and 'A' next n% a 'B' and so on, ok for sorting within a single year, but with a challenged year someone a bit thick coul get an A in a clever year, the most hardworking/intelligent candidate may miss out on an 'A'.

        Though it has to be said, some of the papers I've seen recently at GCSE have been missing only one thing, The Disney logo on them.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: telling ?

          What it could also be showing is that students are better chosen for the courses that they will excel at or that students are just better in general.

          1. dogged

            Re: telling ?

            Optimism is a fine thing but having seen an A level maths paper last week, I'm going with "piss-easy questions".

            1. Nick Ryan Silver badge

              Re: telling ?

              ...and they can take a sheet of all the formula in as well.

              Next they'll be allowed calculators.

        2. Pipe

          Re: telling ?

          This bull**** about challenged years really gets my goat.

          There are about 1.8 million students entering higher education per year.

          http://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=2355&Itemid=161

          Lets pretend they all did A levels that year. Some didnt, some got in through other routes, but then equally some a level students didnt go to university at all. So lets just approximate that 1.8 millions A level students per year.

          Let me say that again, there are 1.8 million A level students each year!

          What is the statistical chance that from one year to the next enough of those 1.8 million are that much smarter than the year before. Statistically extremely unlikely. I realise that stats is one of those 'hard' subjects that most people dont read, but still picking 100 random strangers may result in one group being significantly smarter than another, but not when you are selecting 1.8 million.

          If anyone knows stats well enough to work out the chances please do comment. But with a sample that large its just rubbish. Its the kind of fallacious argument that was used to remove a perfectly good marking system and replace it with one that allowed schools and governments to make it look like they were improving when in reality they took the easy way out.

          1. h4rm0ny

            Re: telling ?

            "What is the statistical chance that from one year to the next enough of those 1.8 million are that much smarter than the year before."

            Lots of things affect the population at the national level. Environmental pollutants, nutritional fads, overall affluence of society, new teaching and parenting fashions... X-factor?

            In general, you're probably right. But the assumption that ability levels don't change from year to year is flawed. Maybe something of a hybrid system is what is needed. Base it on where you fall in your year, but modify the dividers slightly based on overall results. The longer you ran such a system, the more accurate it would become.

          2. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

            Re: telling ?

            "lets just approximate that 1.8 millions A level students per year... What is the statistical chance that from one year to the next enough of those 1.8 million are that much smarter than the year before. Statistically extremely unlikely."

            That is why I said over 10 years. Maybe longer would be more accurate, but I was taking about a long enough timeframe that it would be possible for a significant shift in "ability".

    2. I'm Brian and so's my wife
      WTF?

      That graph is absolutely *shocking*! How can 25+% of people attain the best grade?

      The caption to one of the pictures:

      "17.5% of students in 2009 got three As at A-level"

      What's the flipping point of that? Whoever's in power will tinker & tinker (and generally get it wrong or not leave it long enough to take effect), but right now Gove is proposing to overhaul the exam boards. The proposal sounds good, but we'll have to see about the execution & implementation. Have a search for "gove exam board" and you'll see a link to a Telegraph article (Dec 2011) where he states that universities are starting to cherry-pick students based on the boards they did. This was inevitable.

    3. Dr. Mouse Silver badge

      I'm gobsmacked! Over 25% get an A at A-level?!

      Of course that only represents half the story. If the proportion of kid taking A-levels had reduced, so only the top 40% of those who used to were taking them, then this picture would add up to similar standards. However, I would suspect it has gone the other way, which is even more telling.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Why would anyone deliberately go to Newnham College.?

      Presumably to learn how to chant "To succeed, a woman has to show she's much cleverer, much harder working, and much more productive than men. Fortunately that's not hard."

      Onward Sisters!

  14. frank ly Silver badge

    When I were a lad .....

    When I studied biology and chemistry, we had to dissect a frog then put it back together and reanimate it, using adrenaline and peptides that we'd synthesised the previous day.

    Students nowadays have no idea how lucky they are.

    1. Skizz
      Childcatcher

      Re: When I were a lad .....

      Any simpleton can take stuff apart and put it all back together again! When I were a lad, I had to dig all the parts out of the ground (geology) from the cemetery (with my bare hands!) and then work out how to stick 'em all together (anatomy) timing it with the local weather system (meterology) to get a good lightening storm at just the right point. There were extra marks available for the quality of the gothic architecture (art) in the lab and for the artistic merit of the maniacal laughter (drama).

      1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

        Re: When I were a lad .....

        Twelve of us, there were, all living in a shoebox in the middle of the street....

    2. Anonymous Coward 15
      Happy

      Re: When I were a lad .....

      And here we are again. There seem to be Yorkshiremen in every other thread at the moment.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: When I were a lad .....

        Indeed we are.

  15. Loyal Commenter Silver badge

    Obligatory anecdote

    Shortly after I had finished doing my A-Levels back in the mid '90s, I happened to chance across an old A-level chemistry paper that my mother had pinched from the exam room at the time, I think from some time in the '70s. I had no clue about half of what was on it, despite the fact that I ahd just managed to acheive an 'A' grade and distinction in the special paper in the same subject. Science teaching had been dumbed down then. Despite not having touched any chemistry for over a decade*, I'm pretty sure I could sit the exams as they are now and ace them. It's common knowledge that examination standards in this country have been progressing downhill for years, just as it is common knowledge that those in charge of said standards will continue to deny it ever more forcefully, despite the growing weight of evidence.

    *Okay, I did study it at university for five years, so may have a slight advantage.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Obligatory anecdote

      There has been a marked change in the focus of courses from the 60s to now. I spoke to my Mum about her Chemistry A level, it had four questions, answer three. Each question was in great detail, but if you didn't revise that subject you were screwed. Cut to now, you get a very large amount of questions over a much broader range of the course. I would argue that the current system is fairer and better at testing overall knowledge of a subject, which is the point of an exam.

      (NB: Both parents were teachers, one of them worked for an exam board in the 80s)

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Obligatory anecdote

        You could argue it, but that still doesn't excuse > 25% getting an A.

        What they do to measure is irrelevant, it's how they grade which caused the problems. Exam boards compete with exam boards to make it easier.

        Returning to normalised grading, (percentile in my language,) means boards compete with boards to be tougher, because an Oxbridge board's A, requires more knowledge than a JMB board's A etc.

        Regards

        Class of 81.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Exams getting easier

    I remember sitting my A-levels in 91. Whenever we were doing questions from past papers in the Maths classes the teacher would write up the question numbers to attempt on the board. They would always be in reverse age order (with a few changes to put harder boards like O&C or JMB behind easier ones like AEB). Also, he would have another line of problems to attempt if you had completed all the others. This was reserved for problems from the 70s. He considered them too hard for his A-level class.

    An example I remember clearly was that a standard problem in mechanics concerned computing various things about a ladder against a wall with friction between the base and the floor. You would need to compute the angle you could place it at without it slipping or something like that. In the same topic area, a question from the 70s asked for the angle at equilibrium of a rod placed at an angle in a hemispherical bowl. It was the same basic maths, but way more complex. As well as the friction equilibrium equation, you had a harder time constructing the problem, and had to do more complex trig to get you there.

    A friend of mine now tutors maths and a few other subjects. I've seen modern papers and compared to the papers I sat there has been definite degradation. My papers in the 90s compared to those in the 70s also showed definite degradation. When I started my degree, the university complained about the standard of maths in its first year undergraduates being lower than before - despite virtually everyone have 2 grade A A-levels in Maths.

    1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

      Re: Exams getting easier

      My university maths courses started with "Baby Maths". The lecturer would hand out papers at the end of each lecture and say that you should be able to do ALL the things on it before you'd even applied to university. He quite clearly stated that if you didn't know it now, you'd need to know it before you went any further.

      The first question on the first paper he gave was literally 2+2 and the last on the first paper was something like "a + 5 = 10. What is a?". I kid you not. By the end of the ten weeks where he'd been handing these out, they had covered things like simultaneous equations, simple calculus and things like cross-multiplication. And by then, half the students had left the course (or even the uni). Most people were too embarrassed to hand them in for marking (they were optional), or to discuss them with other students.

      A lot of people got a shock in that first month, I can tell you.

  17. Tony S
    Headmaster

    In my day...

    If it made a bad smell or a loud noise, it was chemistry.

    If it was green or it wriggled, it was biology.

    It it didn't work, it was physics.

    It it involved letters from the alphabet instead of numbers, it was pure maths.

    The reality is that over the last ?? number of years, the various politicos have all wanted to have a hand in education, to prove that "they are doing something". So the culture within education has shifted; and it is all about meeting targets, and "improving" over previous targets, and people get rewarded by these "improvements".

    And under that culture, it is inevitable that things will then focus on making sure that each year's crop of newly qualified students are doing better than their predecessors.

    /cynicism

    RIP Phil Phillips - a teacher of science and maths, a lover of G + S operas, a genius and a complete fruitbat that set himself alight in class at least twice a term. A wonderful teacher; if only more could be like him.

  18. pauly
    Holmes

    Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

    Instead, why not have say the top 5% of students awarded an A, the next 10% B, the next 20% C and so on. Or even like that then down to say 50% mark for a D no matter how many there are.

    That would still give a definite mark to aim for to avoid failure but avoids the success-rate creep problem that we have.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

      Then we would be testing the group each year and each year wouldn't be comparable with other years. Also, if the general standard of education goes up, what's wrong with this being reflected in better results?

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

        And your point is? What a ludicrous argument.

        I tell you what. Let's compare runners from the 1900s.

        Sir Roger Bannister ** must've been utterly shit then, because Usain Bolt! Let's wipe him from the history books.

        Holy shit. I've just discovered I'm a complete genius, because I can crack the Chiffre that only Babbage could a hundred and 50 years ago. This means I'm in the top 0.0000001% of brains of 1860. I should put it on my CV.

        ** Footnote for grade A* history students, Sir Roger Bannister ran the first four minute mile. (It doesn't matter that you don't know that though, so long as you got an A.)

        oh. And Charles Babbage was famous for shagging Lord Byron's daughter!!

        oh! Lord Byron was a poet.

      2. Pipe
        FAIL

        Re: Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

        Whats wrong is blindingly obvious. One day, as humanity gets smarter (if it does), everyone will get 100% and an A. What use is that grade to anyone?

        Reductio ad absurdum? Well we have already reached 25% and its already becoming a useless measure.

        As for reality, everyone isnt getting smarter. Its arguable if they are being taught better. What is more likely is that that possibility is being taken advantage of to make exams easier to pass.

        And for those of you who are clearly in need of dumbing down

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reductio_ad_absurdum

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

      Well it's fine if all you want to do is find the top number of bright students, but that supposes that all years are the same input. Great now we have a 2013 'A' , hang on lets compare that to a 2014 'A' oh no it's only worth a 2012 'B'.

      The only reason that exams have got easier is it benifits too many people, The schools, so they go up in the league tables, the government, look how well our policies are working, the exam boards, look how much money we are making from our better course.

      Please tell me why there is more than one maths GCSE paper for the state sector schools, it would be so much cheaper, a single exam with a single text book, so much easier, go on pretend I'm an RE teacher, so make it simple.

    3. Reue
      FAIL

      Re: Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

      It would also mean its impossible to properly compare students from different years.

      Candidate A graduating in 2013 might get an A grade with 60% because his year group were on average dumber.

      Candidate B graduating in 2014 might then get a B grade with 65% because his year group were on average smarter.

      You see the problem? Simply saying "The top X% get an A grade no matter their actual exam performance" makes it even harder to spot out the high achievers.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

        "Candidate B graduating in 2014 might then get a B grade with 65% because his year group were on average smarter.

        You see the problem? Simply saying "The top X% get an A grade no matter their actual exam performance" makes it even harder to spot out the high achievers."

        There is no problem. Are you seriously suggesting that employers would want people from 2014 if they were better than those from previous years, if 2014 had much more talented people?

      2. Peter Gathercole Silver badge
        Headmaster

        Re: Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

        Marking to the curve is a double edged sword, and I accept that it makes comparing marks year-on-year more difficult, but you have to ask what the point of the exams actually are?

        When I was doing my 'A' levels in the late '70s, the primary reason was so that you could be selected for further education. As there were many fewer university places available, the marking was set so that you could tell who was 'the best' from that year's student population. If less that 10% of the students got an A, these people, who would be the most likely to excel in that subject, got streamed to the best Universities. The next tier down could select from the remainder, and on downward through the Polytechnic system, aiming at people who would excel at HND qualifications, but may not be up to a full degree.

        It did not matter whether there was grade comparison between years, it would be accepted that the best people would always get better marks than the weaker candidates, so the streaming would still work, and the 'right' people would always get to the establishment that best suited them.

        Quite often, it was not the grades that determined what type of work someone ended up in, it was how far they went in the education system. Students who had got to University and completed a degree course had demonstrated by that fact that they were worth employing.

        It is only now that the 'A' levels that are intended to give an absolute measure of how someone's worth that this problem occurs. Since schools have been measured by result, and the curve has been discarded, it has completely devalued them as a mechanism for selecting the best students. Governments and schools each have an interest in 'improving' the results.

        Part of the problem is also political. Educationalists in the '70s and '80s became convinced that non-competitive grading was the only way to avoid stigmatization of kids (abolition of the 11+ and Grammar schools is an example). Schools were not allowed to say to kids "look, you are never going to succeed in becoming a theoretical Physicist, best do some vocational training". All children are given unrealistic expectations by being told that they can achieve anything, and in order to persist this myth, the exams are set so that they think they are good at a subject, when in fact they could be only mediocre.

        This is just dumb. Life is competitive, and that is never going to change. When you go for a job, the best candidate wins (unless the recruitment process is also dumbed down, but that is another rant!) And people not suited or without an aptitude for a particular job will never get it, regardless of how much they want it.

        Setting kids up with realistic expectations, and giving them some taste of reaching their ceiling by allowing some of them to experience disappointment is a required life skill that they have to learn at some point, and my view is that it should be part of the school experience, instead of a post University kick in the teeth.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Why do we have a set pass mark for grades?

      It would also mean that no matter how little was taught or how badly, you would still get the same number of passes. Surely the point of an exam should be to force you to study the subject properly or face getting a poor grade?

      1. Peter Gathercole Silver badge

        AC@16:28

        This is a very defeatist attitude. It assumes that all teachers and all students decide in the same year to do next to nothing.

        If this does not happen, then all those teachers and students do is to make sure that they will fall behind the ones that do try. As what I was envisioning was competition, this is unlikely to happen.

        Human beings are competitive, especially kids. Watch them play. They race, they throw, they compete in games of skill (marbles, conkers, hopscotch, computer games). It's coded into our make-up. You just need to engage their competitive nature in school to ensure that the best can be achieve. You also need to make sure that lesser grades than 'A' still have merit.

        On a side note. I heard a news item about a boat builder who was complaining at the number of kids who are now sucked into the academic stream, who would have previously gone into some form of apprenticeship. He said that we needed bright kids to be the skilled artisans of the future, and all he was seeing after the competent ones had gone to university were the kids who were unable to master his skill. Was a very fair point well made.

        1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

          Re: AC@16:28

          Too many achitects and not enough brick layers.

  19. John70

    Exams

    Its about time the examination boards were overalled and stop them from creating easier exam papers to make their life easier for marking.

    Also get rid of the this A* bollocks and return to A, A-, B+, B, B-, etc

    Nothing should be greater than A.

    </old age rant>

    1. Lee Dowling Silver badge
      Happy

      Re: Exams

      Except A+, I assume, or do you want to confuse the marking scheme even more? How about something even simpler. A, B, C, and YOUFAIL.

      The names of the grades mean nothing, the percentage of people achieving them means everything. People focusing on the name "A*" rather than something else are part of the problem here.

      And I think you mean "overhauled".

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Exams

        "The names of the grades mean nothing, the percentage of people achieving them means everything. People focusing on the name "A*" rather than something else are part of the problem here."

        Better yet, why even bother to go into the complexities of marking an exam, calculating a percentage result, then finding which band it fits in to? Why not just give the percentage mark out in the first place.

        After all, why should two people come out of an exam with the same "grade" when one got 100% and the other got 65%?

      2. John70

        Re: Exams

        And I think you mean "overhauled".

        Yep... just failed English :(

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Exams

      "Its about time the examination boards were overalled"

      I'd make them wear sackcloth !

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "overalled" examination boards

      Yes, I think they would do a much better job as caretakers...

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Oi, my dad's a caretaker

        (He failed his A-levels.)

  20. Pete 2 Silver badge

    A tale of 2 chemistries

    Question 5: In comparison with steel, what is pure iron like?

    Harder

    Magnetic

    Softer

    -----------------------------------------------------------

    Q1, part (c) Describe the action of heat on:

    (i) Sodium hydrogen carbonate

    (ii) lead(II) nitrate

    For further marks, determine which question came from (a) the AQA Extracting metals and making alloys section on the BBC website and (b) the 1973 O&C Chemistry O Level paper

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A tale of 2 chemistries

      How many other questions were on each paper? What were those questions? That's kind of key to your question. It's easy to take something out of context and make it appear that current standards are lower, but really if the current papers have 1000 questions and the 1973 paper had one, it's probable that the 1973 paper wasn't fit for purpose.

      1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

        Re: A tale of 2 chemistries

        I'm not sure it is all that relevant except if you were doing a full scientific study.

        Question 1 on the 1970's paper is a "real" question with no help.

        Question *FIVE* on the "modern" one is a three-option multiple choice about whether a metal is harder than another or not, given to you by the only three possible answers, two of which are opposites and one of which is not a comparison at all (it could be "more" magnetic but that's not what it says) . It's like a baby question from primary school, if you were around in the 1970's. That shouldn't be worth any marks at all, really.

        As everyone else says, that's really a question you can answer with zero knowledge of chemistry, only English, and "pass" quite easily if you're more than 5 or 6 years old and have ever come across steel or iron (and even stand a good chance to get marks by a complete guess and even more by an educated guess based on the wording of the question).

        And although the more modern questions do get harder in actual A-level papers, so do the 1970's and the number of questions (and even marks) stay similar throughout. Hell, why does the student even get TOLD how many marks a question is worth? Surely they should know how much detail they have to give anyway.

        I just went through some 2000-era Chemistry papers online. I know nothing about chemistry. I never took a single chemistry lesson over and above GCSE "Double Science" (which didn't even once do a chemical formula more complicated than salt-water, or any kind of "bond" diagram when I did it - disgusting in itself for that time). According to the marking scheme, I got myself about 30% of the marks just on complete guesses alone, even on the "essay-style" questions. That's skipping the questions that I could have answered properly based on my own study into chemistry, or that I could answer in a few minutes with a chemistry book in front of me.

        According to some 2010 papers I found online:

        "Define the term mass number of an atom. The mass number of an isotope of nitrogen is 15. Deduce the number of each of the fundamental particles in an atom of 15N"

        is one of the highest scoring (3 marks of 70 total for the paper) out of 8 questions (2-3 parts per question) on an A-Level paper. 1 mark for defining the term. 1 mark for getting the electrons and protons right. One mark for getting the neutrons right. That's 4% of the entire marks of an A-level paper for being able to do something that I know already without ever having been taught Chemistry (and knew when I was 10/11, if I'm honest, without ever having studied it in school).

        Yet, any paper I can find pre-1990 I barely understand the question let alone could stab at the answer.

        Of course when making comparisons you have to take everything into account but, honestly, the comparison is easy (and scary) to make with a little research and backs up the OP's (slightly exaggerated and obviously not meant to be definitive) assertion. Finding online copies of 1970's exam papers is far from easy, though. Maybe that's why people don't try and compare properly, or think the 2000-era papers are "good".

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: A tale of 2 chemistries

      Q3. What do we wash with?

      1. Soap.

      2. Copper.

      3. Aluminium.

      (I have on good authority this was seriously considered as GCSE chemistry question 2 years ago, (from my daughter's headmistress.))

    3. Boris the Cockroach Silver badge
      Headmaster

      Re: A tale of 2 chemistries

      Question 5

      What type of steel are we talking about here?

      Good old mild steel, 4360 steel, 303 stainless, P20 tool steel? inconel?

      Also, define hardness? we talking rockwell scale hardness or tensile strength?

      Boris

      <<<gets to play with all sorts of steel at work

  21. Anonymous Coward
    Stop

    Shhhsshhh

    As clearly by even mentioning this (something we have all known for years), we are apparently devaluing the achievements of the current generation of students.

  22. Ralph B
    Headmaster

    Easier for Whom?

    I suspect that the main motivation behind the points listed (multiple choice versus written answers, etc.) was to make the exams easier to mark rather than to be easier to pass. If we return to the older/harder style then the the exam boards are going to have to dump their automated marking computers and/or stop outsourcing the work to unqualified 3rd world sweatshop workers.

    It's gonna cost.

  23. Anonymous Coward 15
    Holmes

    A-Level Biology, unit 1

    Write 200 words on the topic of ursine defecation in arboreal environments.

    1. graeme leggett

      Re: A-Level Biology, unit 1

      Describe the religious affiliation of the senior executive office holder of the Vatican in the 21st Century. Contrast with previous office holders in the 18th and 19th Centuries.

  24. AndyC
    FAIL

    Exams ARE esier

    I did my GCSEs in 1990 and A levels in 1992. Even then, we had to have extra maths lectures in the first year of University (Sheffield) to 'bring us up to the expected standard' for our Physics course.

    A few years later, I tried my hand at being a physics teacher. The head of department had his own notebook, where he had done his plan for the A level physics syllabus when he first started teaching 25 years earlier. Over a quarter of the book had red crosses through it because it was no longer taught.

    When I did my exams, the syllabus and the exams themselves were set by the Universities (JMB in my case). So there was a definite progression and you could see where they were going. GCSE->A Level->Degree etc. Now, it's all about the league tables.

    Standards are falling, our politicians just don't want to admit it.

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Maths and Science

    The national Maths challenges seem to me a positive step forward, my son actually enjoyed taking this years paper recently and curious if he makes it to the final. Motivating. Sure private schools are at an advantage but makes success all the more gratifying at a mixed ability comp. We never had that in my day lessons were dry as dust when I was 13. (took A Levels in 1974 none of that 1980s dumb down). Not everything is negative no need for quite as much when I was a lad. Though GCSE and A Level Maths need beefing up a couple of notches as noted here.

    I'd like to see more initiatives along these lines in science too. A Physics challenge isn't a bad idea.

    .

    1. Lee Dowling Silver badge

      Re: Maths and Science

      Back in the 1990's (and even the 80's I think), there was a NatWest maths challenge. It was quite a big fuss every year they held it. My older brother and I had both entered it multiple times at some point on the recommendation of our maths teachers (we weren't exactly boffins, but we were top of our respective maths classes) along with the others from the "top-set" of maths.

      It had been around for ages. Schools entered it (even though I don't think there was any "prize" as such). Motivated students wanted to be put into it. In lessons afterwards, I can remember my hastily-scribbled answers (we'd arrived to the even 20 minutes late) being pored over by my peers in class (and even laughing at the ones I had no time to answer at all and had scribbled funny nonsense on instead).

      There's always been events and motivations to learn. In fact, I'm disappointed there aren't MORE now. Why isn't there some free, national, online competition for just about every subject in the world for every pupil who wants to compete, with some decent incentive for pupils/schools to enter candidates for it? (Probably because it would show up those who get A's but aren't even on the same planet in terms of ability as the people who would win. Getting "A-star" and then coming 5000th in a competition of 5000 is hardly confidence-inspiring in the pupil, the teacher or the grade).

      Competitions don't provide 1% of the incentive of needing to get good grades that are hard to achieve when it comes to learning.

  26. umacf24
    Happy

    Syllabus is fine but exams are easier, and the books are better

    I've been helicopter parenting around the OCR GCSE Maths.

    The content of the course is excellent, though obviously different to what I remember from O level. I certainly don't miss logarithms, and the extra statistics/data is much more use. But the exams really don't go anywhere near the level of the course. If you want an 'A' you have to get pretty much everything correct, as there aren't any tougher, high-mark questions. And you have to get an 'A' as decent sixth-forms discount everything else!

    We often hear that the teaching has improved. Well, I don't remember bad teaching but I do remember (1976) absolutely shocking textbooks. The "official" textbook for OCR was a revelation, and things like a matching revision guide will inevitably mean that any willing child will be much better prepared for the exam than we ever were.

    So, good news on the whole, but I wish that the exam would separate out the candidates more. But don't get me started on number-free physics....

  27. Semaj
    FAIL

    Except that in the "good old days" it was hard because absolutely every topic was learn by wrote with no thought going in at all.

    Ask anyone over a certain age what 7x12 is and they'll tell you in a second. Ask them 14x6 and they'll have trouble.

    Understanding is much more useful than memorizing.

    HOWEVER - we do allow people to "pass" when they really shouldn't.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Wrong in the first sentence.

      14x6 isn't valuable in an era of LSD.

      7x12 is.

      Learning by rote works for everyday things.

      Just compare the output of a Peking schoolkid to one from Islington to see that.

      If you're spending 10 seconds working out what someone else just KNOWS, they you've already lost.

      1. Semaj
        Trollface

        Re: Wrong in the first sentence.

        10 seconds? Haha

  28. MahFL22

    I agree.

    We did back papers too and they were harder. That was in 1981.

  29. SirDigalot

    i agree

    with the premace that multiple choice is for quicker marking then at least you can feed the papers into a machine and it can optically scan the sheet and spit out an answer, that way, the marking/grading is reduced to basically a minimum wage person feeding a machine, and entering a student number/name, and technically not needing to know anything more then middle school english, they coudl even be foriegn/illegal if they can simply copy what they see! soon i think we will get to the point that our pouchlings will get an instant result to all their exams, be it because they are taking them on electronic paper/tablets, or, if they are taking it on paper it will be simple to feed it into a machine at the back of the exam hall and get a result texted to you.

    U Pass! congrats! U have an A!

    (standard messaging rates apply)

    while not minding the idea that they should take the exams electronically, they could even make the exams harder as there will be no need to decipher bad writing, however i can see you might require a few people to sort out those questions that might be right but are worded badly, which of course defeats the purpose of an electronic exam - to make more people members of the unlimited leisure class, but then again the format works for quite a few IT based exams i do not see why the education system cannot do the same.

  30. It wasnt me
    Happy

    @ The author

    Anna leach ? Youre new around here are you?

    "making it harder for clever clogs to show off their abilities".

    I think you'll find around here the correct phraseology would be :

    "making it harder for nascent boffins to show off their abilities"

  31. JFK
    Alien

    Irish observation

    Observation here from a product of the irish education system. Finished secondary school in Ireland in '93

    Sat 7 subjects at the Irish equivalent of A level (used UK A level papers in exam prep). Places for uni were really competitive with a points system that worked on picking your best 6 subject results and each grade roughly broken down into 5% increments awarding increased amounts of points. A was 85%, B was 70%+, C was 55%+ D was 40%, less than 40% was a fail.

    uni entry was down to your results total against the demand for the course. Bloody stressfull and tough work !

    I did notice some subjects introducing multiple choice around that time. But they had negative marking for incorrect answers at least a token effort against the guess culture that slowly followed.

    Seeing comments here about almost 25% getting the top marks and A* going for 70% belittles the relative worth so much its tragically comical from an international perspective.

    And don;t get be started on Oxbridge B.Sc. earners being awarding an automatic MSc 1 year after graduation....

    ~JFK

    Alien as I'm a legal alien stealing your lovely London IT jobs.

  32. Nick Gisburne

    Why not tell them the actual percentage?

    Here's a radical idea: instead of A,B,C why not just tell students how many marks they got out of 100? Universities could immediately decide which percentile they want their applicants to fall into - for Oxbridge you might need 90%, for Scuzzo Uni it could be 65%.

    If different exam boards set less challenging questions, perhaps the universities could take that into account when making their offers. Board A - you'll need 80%, Board B you'll only need 75% (because they have higher standards).

    If they introduced A* to identify elite students, giving out the actual percentages surely does that job much better.

  33. Efros

    Multiple Choice Qs are not

    Necessarily easy. Exam questions need to be very carefully written and the answers in a multi-choice section need just as much attention. A-E should always be the option -0.5 points for a wrong answer liberal use of multi stage questions involving interpretation of diagrams/tables can make these sort of Exams more challenging than the traditional written exam.

  34. david 63

    I'm only here because of the picture on the front page.

    There I said it.

  35. sleepy

    Back in the 60's we did maths like this at school:

    A certain council has a long straight road, and three identical snow ploughs which clear snow at a constant rate (so speed is inversely proportional to depth of snow). One day it began to snow steadily. The council sent a plough along the road. After an hour they sent the second plough behind the first. After another hour, they sent the third plough. Some time later it was still snowing steadily, and the second and third ploughs simultaneously crashed into the first. How long had it been snowing before the first plough was sent out?

    You'd get 30-40 minutes for a question like that, but you'd also be able to choose a different hard question. Oh look, someone's posted the solution if you're interested:

    http://www.austincc.edu/rgrmth/logic.htm#snowplow

  36. toadwarrior

    Everyone must have a degree, it's the only way you'll be worth anything to society as I understand and the only way to make that happen is to lower standards. Of course degrees will become a requirement eventually because having one will only just prove you're not mentally retarded.

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    my 2c worth...

    there ar all sorts of issues with exams these days...

    the biggest problem is that schools are teaching kids to pass an exam and not so much teach them the subject.

    My daughter has her exams coming up in a few weeks, but with all the coursework marks she is almost guaranteed to get A's and A* across all subjects,... she handed in one piece of coursework a few weeks ago and the teacher handed it her back a few days later with what she needs to change to get an A*... the work was then handed back in with the amendments made ... their is no exam in this particular subject, its all coursework....

    that said, there are many in her class expected to do not so well... and she did put a really good effort in in the first place, and it was only minor amendments to a few sentences....

  38. Demosthenese

    Market Forces

    The exam boards compete for examinees - and so it is in their interest to offer examinations that 'support' greater success in the candidates. So no surprise that pass rates and grades achieved continually rise - the few exam boards that stood firm against the trend went bust.

  39. spegru
    Megaphone

    Teaching for Exams

    Almost all of this hoo-hah is based on ever rising exams results

    What so many people seem not to understand is that this HAS to be because of league tables and the national curriculum. This has caused schools to focus on teaching to pass exams - quelle surprise!

    What it does not show is that the questions have got any easier (perceived difficulty of old past papers due to curriculum changes doesn't count). It just proves that schools are focussing on what gets better results.

    What it also proves is that the exam system esp when taken at ages 16 & 18 etc is not a very good way of judging a person's worth.

    And it was ever thus......

  40. Ian McLaughlin
    WTF?

    stockings and suspenders?

    Odd picture to accompany an article about school exams, it's showing on el Reg front page on the story carousel

  41. Bob the Bastard
    Megaphone

    I despair of the education system...

    I've interviewed four people face to face in the last two weeks, all with an Msc in electronics. Not one could read a circuit diagram or tell me the gain of a simple inverting amplifier op-amp stage. How on earth did they get their FIRST degree? I've also interviewed three people who claim to be profficient in C but not one could tell me what 'void', 'static' or 'const' meant in a simple function prototype. It would have been cruel to ask about constant pointers. And these are the best of about 40 CVs.... Guys, a second degree will not get you a job. Ability will. The lack of skilled staff is costing industry a fortune.

    For the record I'm a grumpy old engineer who got a polytechnic degree in the '70s. I'm certain it was harder, we came out much better equiped and the tax payer got their monies worth. Now you just throw away your own money to come out with nothing saleable. Recruiting in the '80s I could get a dozen people in a week who could answer, without hesitation, the questions I'm asking today. Where have they gone?

    Anyone want a job in real-time embedded C and/or elctronics design?

    As there is nothing funny in this, I didn't bring a coat.

    1. J.G.Harston Silver badge

      Re: I despair of the education system...

      You're hiring? Where do I apply?

  42. John Brown (no body) Silver badge
    Coat

    Multiple choice exams

    The "easy" multiple choice exams with obviously "wrong" answers and "leading" questions to point you to the "correct" answer is all a plot by the New World Order so as to condition the public into voting the "correct" way when the EU becomes a state, eventually leading to World Government.

    It's ok, I'm a Geordie. I don' need no steenkin' coat.

  43. jason 7
    Unhappy

    The scary thing is where it all ends.

    There you are aged 70, laying on a operating table for your heart bypass. When in walks the surgeon and he/she has the brain power of Jade Goody.

    "Hiyaaaa I dunt know much abahht all vis heart ser...serg...fixin' but I ave the sertificates and stuff! Funny innit!"

    Is that what you want? Cos that's what'll happen!

  44. steveydee82

    obviously...

    and in other news, the grass is green and the sky is blue. Exams in many subjects are getting easier, which devalues the grades of those of us that took them years ago. Still, at least the goverment gets to look like it's doing better on education.

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