Friday, 15 August 2008

Modern Education, Grade Inflation

The combination of the A-level results yesterday, and Simon Myerson QC's recent blog has me thinking about education both in terms of my own experience, and how its general approach has changed over the years.

I went to school during the years where we weren't 'taught' grammar, or at least weren't taught things in terms of the 'past participle' and the 'reflexive verb' etc.
When I have cousins over from France (as they pop over every now and then to work on their English) or foreign friends who ask me how to say a particular thing, they will often frame it in all the grammar lingo. My response will usually be - give me an example?! I think I know how it should sound but I don't really know any of the rules. So, all those books I've bought on how to improve your writing etc (ok, the one book) aren't much use because I barely understand the different between a noun and a verb.

I don't imagine I'm unique, I probably learned more grammar and punctuation from reading voraciously as a child than actually in the classroom, but I think that period of teaching english in schools has hampered both my generations ability to write 'correctly' and our ability to learn foreign language. It's a bit tricky to master the past historic in French if you have no idea what the correlating use would be in English (there isn't one actually). Teaching grammar in a more free way (by not teaching it, but by allowing students to pick up the rules in a more childlike, natural process) only really works for English, I think, because it has so many exceptions to rules. It certainly doesn't work for continental European languages.

In one respect then, I do think that losing some of the traditional elements of education (like teaching grammar in a strict, rules focussed way) has been to our detriment. I think they have changed policies since I was at school though, if my siblings' school experience is anything to go by. My sister still wouldn't know a semi-colon if it dropped in her tea, but there you go!

I am terrifically bored by the perennial A-levels debate however. The fact that A-level passes improve every year must mean that A-levels are getting easier - or that kids are getting smarter. Both positions are clearly wrong in my mind.

When I started my A-levels I remember my Chemistry teacher telling us that A-levels were a game, and in order to do well you had to learn the rules. That isn't to say that it was easy, but in to succeed you had to master the exam style, and learn how to project the information you knew to an examiner audience.

It seems natural to me that in this style of examination, as years pass on, students have more past examinations to rely on, and teachers become more adept at teaching towards the examination style that results will improve. The examinations are not getting easier, but our approach to them is more focussed.

And indeed, I believe the students themselves are much more focussed. Did you need 3 A's to get into university 10 or 20 years ago? Prince Charles certainly didn't and still made it to Trinity College, Cambridge (although perhaps that's a different phenomenon altogether). There was either less competition, or the perception of competition. People who do A-levels largely have already decided they want to go to university, and people are realising that they need good grades much earlier on - at GCSE and A-level level. Look at America, where students who are determined to get into the Ivy League universities will be worried about their 'Grade Point Average' very early on, from perhaps the age of 13.

Having said this, when you consider who sets and chooses the exams it may be that grade inflation should be a concern: the exams are in the wrong hands. The people who select which exam boards to take have an interest in choosing the exam board with the highest rate of success (the students and teachers) because it serves their interests. The exam boards (the AQA's and the Edexcel's) have an interest in having high success rates because this is what the students and teachers - their buyers- are looking for.

The universities (or employers, but generally the universities) however, have an interest in accurate results in order to select the truly brightest and best. Students, teachers and the Exam boards do not stand to lose by inflation of results (not on a short term basis at least) and as long as they are in control of setting the exams, and selecting the exams, there is no incentive for grade inflation not to occur.

The answer would of course be to put the examinations in the hands of those who have an incentive not to inflate results, because they are interested in accurate results. Unis have long done this, with Oxbridge entrance exams, entrance exams for Medicine and Law etc. But the problem with that of course is self-selection - students will only take the LNAT at X Redbrick if they think they are capable of getting into X Redbridge, and students from non-traditional backgrounds (the working class, ethnic minorities, and those without a family history of higher education) will not enter for those exams. So University set exams might deal with the grade inflation issue, but they bring up a whole load of diversity and fairness related issues.

I do think however that the A-level debate largely overlooks the fact that A-levels today are just not the same kettle of fish as a decade or a generation ago. And not because society is going to hell in a handcart, and all our youth do is text message each other about Britney's latest lack of panties, or whatever. It is a different world, in education and in work. A-levels are less focussed on knowing bare, dusty facts than they used to be but more on understanding basic principles, communicating clearly, and writing for a particular audience. These are important skills that employers are always crying out for more of - the ability to work from basic principles, and communication skills.

In short, they test 'softer' skills than they used to, but I don't think they're soft exams. We may still have to get the balance right, but isn't application generally to be preferred over memorisation?


Bar Boy said...
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barmaid said...

hello mel,
I'm having problems with my email at the moment, could you re-send your email address to me, I've deleted your message by mistake whilst trying to sort out the email problem (I.T. isn't my strongest point!)