A-levels getting easier…

A YEAR from today, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a front page with the headline ‘100% success for all A-Level students’. Perhaps it’s because the discredited exams are getting easier. Well aren’t they?

  • Fraggle

    A Leaving Cert used to be worth 1/2 an A-Level, now one is worth 2/3. The LC hasn’t changed much…………….

  • cladycowboy

    Congratulations Fraggle, you’ve just passed A-Level Maths… 😉

  • Cahal

    Imagine somebody from NI belittling somebody else’s achievements. Shocker.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    It’s hard to know if its age that makes you think exams are getting easier than in your day or if there is something to it(God I am old enough to have taken ‘O’ levels!)but the evidence does seem to be mounting that something is amiss in exam town. The pass rate since 1988 has moved from 82% to 96.2% and a whopping 22.8% at A grade (Harvard has a generous enough grading curve but only the top 5% get A grades with another 15% on A-) that does seem to be a significant shift and one has to wonder if it’s really explainable as a product of superior skill on the part of the students. Noticeably the recent ‘Reform’ report suggested that they had got easier and that a C student in 1988 would be an A student now. If that’s true I would be a straight A student nowadays having got B’s in 1989 and I cant think of a more discrediting fact than that!

  • Dr Fredrick Töben

    Just look at who is in charge of the GB standards matter – Dr Ken Boston

    Please view:


  • Gonzo

    One of the oddities of the 11+ is that (I think) the ‘A’ grade is the top X percent, while in A-Levels it seems to be determined by getting above a certain percentage.

    Maybe the grades are higher now because subjects are taught in a more ‘bite size’ way, no? To use an analogy:

    If I read a page of a book and am asked what it said or meant, that’s pretty easy to answer. Repeat many times. Obtain high grade. Have very little understanding of what the book taken as a whole meant.

    Or am I just jealous of the kids these days? Must be getting old! In my day, an A seemed to mean something. Grades are not just there to make students feel good about themselves – they are indicators to universities, colleges and employers of the student’s strengths and weaknesses (although other evidence of ability is often more useful than academic qualifications). With a greater proportion of students achieving similar high grades, that is no longer as possible.

    A-levels are useful as a focus for students, and exams provide an objective for them to aim at. But if the end result means less and less every year to employers and educators, what is the point of continuing with them? If everyone passes next year, and a high proportion of those are A’s and B’s, won’t the purpose of A-levels have been rendered meaningless?

  • Blackadder

    Well I did my A Levels a few years back, so of course they’re getting easier, and shame upon those markers giving today’s children top marks when they’re obviously big stupidheads.

  • Nestor Makhno

    There is an element of sour grapes about the whole debate but I think there is definitely something up.

    I sat my A levels in 1985 at a reasonably good grammar school in south Derry. As far as I can recall only one person in a year of about 80 students managed four As at A level – and he was off the scale in terms of ability (I think he ended up earning shed loads of money as a geneticist in Geneva).

    The rest of us muddled through with mostly Bs and Cs – and the odd A.

    What was more interesting were the 100 or so other students who dropped out at 16 after their poor ‘O’ levels with little prospect of even studying for A level. What did they do? Nothing much really – signed on the dole. I suspect many more of the people in this ability range are now making it through to A Level and on to university. Not necessarily a bad thing – ok so the overall standard might be poorer but a modern economy needs third level educated workers – not a bunch of 16 year olds who have had little experience of critical thinking which, at the very least, a university education still manages to encourage… (or am I deluding myself?)

  • Kevin

    Sky News tried something yesterday to find out. They took 3 students who had just received straight As and gave them a Maths paper from 10 years or so to sit. Two of the students got Us, while the other got an F.

    I’m not sure is that’s a valid way of checking, but it’s certainly a little odd that A grade students would do so badly.

  • slug

    Good discussion.

    Surely there is nothing wrong with more passes. The problem is if too many people get an A then universities have nothing to go on when selecting candidates. Thats why the number of grades could be increased – e.g. split up each grade as follows A1 A2 A3 then B1 B2 B3 etc. So only the top 1 or 2% get A1.

  • slu

    The problem for places like Oxford Cambridge and Imperial (and some of the more competitive courses like Law at QUB) is that almost everyone applying will be predictred and get three As. These universities have started their own “tests” – basically intelligence tests like the USAs SATs – to determine the entry.

    Perhaps that is maybe needed – a UK SAT alongside the A levels?

  • cash

    Couldn’t agree more gonzo. It is possible to obtain the highest mark at A level and not really understand what the heck the subject was about, however only in certain subjects.

    This can be achieved in subjects like business studies, religion, history, geography and English – where the pupil can memorise essays, dates, acts of gov, quotes etc and regurgitate teacher’s notes in an exam.
    In my opinion it can’t be achieved in science based subjects, languages, music or art. Genuine knowledge and/or flair must be obtained in order to achieve an A at A level.

    Assessment is a strange phenomenon though, and how the result of sitting an exam can have such an effect on a young person’s life is just not right. I do believe it is the only way that the world could work and for that I’ll play ball, but to say that because pupil A who got 75% is as good at mathematics as Pupil B who got 99% is very ‘out there.’ Even though they both got an A – because the result doesn’t show the limitations of the exam then we assume they are equally as good or as capable.

    In the words of David Bates “Assessment is truly Voodoo.”

  • jocky

    The problem is not restricted to A levels, it goes to universities as well.

    It’s part of the whole culture of deferred success, no ones a loser, if you get a poor grade, it must be the teachers/exams fault not your own failure to grasp the subject matter, everyone a winner.

    When I left school this trend was coming in of teaching the subject in a way the pupils would understand, an emphasis on coursework, all good in principle but what it amounts to was teaching the subject to pass an exam, the understanding of the subject was a secondary concern. In this respect Duncan book, page a test analogy isnt far wrong.

    Look at the amount of people going to university nowadays, has everyone got brighter all of a sudden?

    The proving ground comes when the little precious go into the real word where problems arent tailored around your understanding. I work for a small consulting firm, so I see plenty of graduates and Id say a first glass Master Degrees isnt worth an old BSc. Huge gaps in understanding of fundamentals.

    The problem is no ones a winner, the genuinely birght pupils cant distinguish themselves formt he dross, the dross live in a bubble unaware of their limitations.

    Rant over.

  • jocky

    Continuing the rant and following on what cash said, is it any coincidence in the days of ever higher exam marks that fewer and fewer pupils are doing maths and sciences? Opting for business studies, media studies and god know what else studies, these new subjects. Why do maths, physics and chemistry where youd have to graft and genuinely understand and apply concepts where you might get 3 B’s or some C’s when you can piss about for 2 years and stroll to an A in media studies?

  • nmc

    Another thing worth considering is the modular approach of A/AS levels. You can now sit and fail your first exam, and resit it twice more over the two years. Your best grade is used. Makes life a bit easier than the good old days when you had one opportunity to show what you had learned over the full two years.

  • Nestor Makhno

    I think the final judgement about the quality of the nation’s education system will make itself known over the next twenty years in (mostly) economic terms – the quality of our innovation, R&D, entrepreneurial success, cultural and artistic achievements, etc.

    For all the talk about Northern Ireland’s excellent education system it seems to be tailored to producing a disporportionate number of doctors, lawyers and accountants who head off for London as soon as their degree parchment comes through.

    Places such as Japan, India and China have education systems that are (worryingly) dog-eat-dog but which churn out top notch students who crave hard work and competition. Their engineers are creating brilliantly designed mp3 players for under $100, thinking about nuclear fusion reactors, putting satellites in orbit.

    I don’t think our generation of kids will stand a chance – we’re already pissing away the capital of 150 years of western economic dominance but the signs are that this competitive advantage is coming quickly to an end.

    I’m not sure strong A Level grades in Media Studies is going to be much use.

    (God, I’m starting to sound like a neo-con…)

  • Feismother

    Once more we have the annual “let’s slag the A level students” As someone who sat the exam in 1976, went to university and has just seen her second daughter through A level I can say that the students today are better taught and better prepared than I ever was.

    Yes, they do sit AS modules a year early but that’s why many of them now take 4 A levels. In my day some students only took two and could still get a place on a “good” degree at a “good” university. As for learning off essays etc, I seem to remember quite a bit of that in my day. And after taking “A” level History I don’t think I was any more aware of “what History was” than my eldest who is now studying it at university.

    My second daughter’s insurance offer was 3 A grades. That’s how tough it is these days and the pressure on both students and teachers to perform is tremendous. I don’t even remember knowing what other students in my year got in their exams, it was nobody’s business but theirs. Now everything’s plastered over Prizegiving ceremonies and newspapers.

    As for Media Studies, it wouldn’t be for me but remember, in earlier years people turned their noses up at English Literature and the Sciences as suitable degree subjects. The only “real” education was Philosophy and the Classics.

  • cash

    Also nmc

    the result at AS can be taken with you – if you got a c you can re-sit the exam years down the line to try and better it, as many times as you want, as long as the appropriate fees are paid.

    It all boils down to money eventually.
    more assessment and testing means more money for the examination boards who are private companies who tailor the examinations to make them appealing to schools i.e. English literature, some provide the necessary books with each poem to be covered included (making it easy for schools to buy text books from them) as well as setting the exam and re-sits

  • David

    I did my alevels in 2003. I achieved A grades in Maths, Physics and Accounts. I also achieved a top 10 in Computing (obviously I choose to do Law at university with those subjects). During my time studying I honestly found that older exam papers particularly in Applied Maths and Accounts were much easier to do. I feel that the exams were not easier for my year just that I was better prepared and better taught.

    Conversly in 2003 I also did an A2 in politcs (the grade doesnt count because I had no A/S) I got over 90% and I have never had a politics class in my life (long story as to why I sat the exams). Before anyone criticises my english I must point out I am heavily dyslexic although this wasnt diagnosed until my second year at uni.

    On another interesting note Cambridge rejected me after interview as not being of a high enough standard. Mind you Oxford also rejected Nothern Irelands top achiever that year (3 a’s and 2 firsts) as also not being of a high enough standard. Just to bring up another point. I went to a comprehensive school NI’s top achiever in my year did not.

  • Gonzo

    Why’s everyone so down on Media Studeis… that was what I did my BA in!

  • mickhall

    Nestor Makhno, now there is a name from the past, I doubt Nestor had any A levels nor there equivalents, if I remember rightly he ended his days as a factory worker in France, bless him.
    As to A levels, as far as I can tell there is no evidence they are any easier today than in the past. The youngsters still put in a hell of a lot of work to get their grades, myself I just rejoice so many of them do so well. Although we should not over look the fact in some areas in the north young people are still leaving school without any qualifications. Perhaps instead of over reacting about A levels etc, we should concentrate on rectifying this problem. I find something perverse about this debate which seems to raise its silly head almost every year of late.

  • Jimmy_Sands

    Given that the current crop are getting better grades than us (and this appears to be the case with the leaving no less than a-levels) it is flattering to us to suggest they’re getting easier. Based on my conversations with teachers I think the main reason is that students now work harder than we did and are under more pressure than we were. I don’t envy them.

    They may, of course, also be smarter than we were too.

  • Gonzo

    Mick Hall

    Is the fact that there is a high proportion of kids leaving school with no A-levels (or maybe ANY decent) qualifications and another high proportion coming out with the highest possible grades – which may not be deserved – of no cause for concern to you?

    From your own socialist perspective, is the fact that more and more students are getting grade A’s and B’s that would have been lower grades a few years ago not helping create a wider education gap between the haves and have-nots?

    Is academic achievement not being polarised by the lack of differentiation?

  • BogExile

    In my day when you had to choose between eating the coal or burning it – I somehow ended up the the ‘c’ set for maths O’ level. For a mainly ‘a’ stream boy this was like beinf forced to visit the dark side of the moon for four periods a week.

    The assorted munters and grunters were addressed by the legendary maths teacher on our first day.

    ‘If you’re only stupid I will give you enough maths to get into the RUC. If you’re stupider than that I’ll still get you into the UDR.’

    The rumour is that in his later years he spent more time on the grass verge in the rain surrounded by his car seats than the local shinners.

  • micktvd

    ‘I’m not sure strong A Level grades in Media Studies is going to be much use.’

    Nestor, one of the neocons favourite paranoias is that the media are a vast liberal conspiracy. Another thesis is that media bias reflects corporate ownership, etc. Many people think that the media are partly responsible for lending undue credibility to the deceptions that led to the Iraq debacle. In any case, understanding and study of the media is vital. Perhaps vital to our survival. As vital as an improved MP3 player, in my opinion.

  • Gonzo

    Where did the Orangeman store his party tunes?

    On an I-Prod.

    Ba-doom tish.

  • Donnie

    Much has been said above about the apparent dumbing down of A-Levels. I think the rise in exam results is inevitably a combination of all of the above.

    Modularised exams, a greater reliance on course-work, more access to internet resources, better teaching resources and a move away from old school “chalk and talk” teaching styles have all no doubt contributed to the rise in standards.

    My wife and sister-in-law were marking GCSE exams this summer and when they were being “bench-marked” exams they thought were of a grade E standard were returned as a B!!! Go figure…

  • beano

    Sorry Gonzo, it’s been done

  • mickhall


    Is there any real evidence that it is easier to get A levels these days, or have the dogs in the street been at work again. Say there is, this would mean it is not only easier to get good grades but also the lower grades. Thus those who would have failed in the past can now get to Uni. if so this would mean it would also mean it is easier to get a degree as there does not seem to have been a fall in the numbers graduating. Yet I have not heard this said.

    I think those who have posted to this thread and have pointed out pupils are taught and examined in a different manner than in the past may have a point. It may also be an example of people pulling up the draw bridge so to speak, after they themselves have gained their own qualifications. [Something the ministers in the Blair government have been guilty of with higher education being free at point of need etc]

    As I have said my main concern is with those youngsters who are leaving school without any qualifications, as I just do not believe in the main they are any less bright than those who gain the average A level.

    all the best


  • aquifer

    The kids leaving school with little or nothing is a tragedy that has been tolerated for years. Also it seems that the academic exam focus drives out more inclusive activities in the schools, such as sport, drama, or craft subjects, which can socialise some of the rougher kids or stretch the bright ones to broaden out.

    Will the next scandal be the young students with early obesity and heart conditions, or the shortage of joiners?