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Dumbed down national exams? What do older people think?

(178 Posts)
Lucia39 Tue 07-Apr-09 16:01:03

To get an A* pass for GCSE English Literature now requires a mere 56%!

How do those old enough to have taken 'O' levels feel about this?

Is the Government right and are 16-18 year olds getting brighter year on year? Or have the powers-that-be simply dumbed down the GCSEs and 'A' levels thereby allowing candidates who would have failed 'O' levels (i.e. not gained a grade C) to now believe they are actually competent in their subjects?

jujumaman Tue 07-Apr-09 16:13:48

They've dumbed them down, of course they have

It's insulting to those who might score really top grades - over 75 per cent but will rreceive no recognition for outstanding pperformances and just been dumped in with the herd,

Ooh, the educational system in this country angry

BTW, thanks for reminding me I'm an "older" person wink

scienceteacher Tue 07-Apr-09 16:16:17

Well, you have to look at grade boundaries, not just raw %.

English/English Literature were the only GCSEs that my DS didn't get an A* in (he got As). I was a bit shocked because I thought his writing was excellent. When I looked up data for how many students were awarded A* in English, it turned out that only 1% of boys received A*. I didn't feel so bad for my DS.

mummydoc Tue 07-Apr-09 16:19:10

agree too, i remember doing my a levels 20 yrs ago - i worked soooo hard and got 1 a grade, 2 b grades and a c grade. that was considered very good, in my school ( very high flying girls boarding school) there were 38 girls taking a levels that year and 4 of them got straight a grades. now that seems the norm - i just cannot believe that teenagers are getting brighter ???and if they are by what means is this phenominal rise in hteir intelligence coming about an dwhy is the goverment not researching this so it could be used to create an ever increasingly bright nation .....

scienceteacher Tue 07-Apr-09 16:20:59

I have to say, though, that I find modules, resits, and unmoderated teacher assessments rather shocking. That wouldn't have happened in my day.

I think that it is right that we should have a system where 99% of pupils who put in the effort get something to show for it. It is very sad to think that you can work for two years on something and come away with nothing.

I do think there are far too many A grades.

I didn't grow up in England so did not experience the competition between awarding bodies in those days. I do feel now that when I go to sales pitches for their courses, they do push how it is easier to get an A from their board vs competitors (I assume they all do it).

stuffitllama Tue 07-Apr-09 16:22:04

This older person agrees with juju. I think most older people would agree with juju. There's evidence.. comparing old O level questions to GCSE questions. They were even dumbed down in the eighties from earlier years.

But fewer people did them.. if you didn't do Os you did CSEs, much easier to pass. So if you want a standard exam which most people can pass you have to make it easier than if you have one for the brighter/better educated and one for the less bright/less well educated.

So they are easier, but they have to be, or the failure rate would be too high. What I really don't understand is that O level students seem to be working incredibly hard and producing vast amounts of coursework for their results. It's very tough on them.

stuffitllama Tue 07-Apr-09 16:23:08

much more thoughtful and interesting replies from scienceteacher

stuffitllama Tue 07-Apr-09 16:23:59

scienceteacher would you bring back CSEs?

scienceteacher Tue 07-Apr-09 16:26:14

I'm not trying to defend the system but just trying to explain the rise in attainment...

When I did my O-grades and Highers, we just learnt the material and did the exams at the end of the year after a few weeks of revision.

Now, they do loads of past papers, are intensely aware of grade boundaries, read examiners' reports etc. They are more tuned into the mechanics of the examinations than we ever were. Also, they have so many revision aids open to them - CGP books, endless websites, and revision classes at school. This must be worth quite a few extra marks.

VirginiaWoolf Tue 07-Apr-09 16:27:51

Of course they're easier. I find it insulting to the teachers/students of bygone years (said she, waving her knitting and teeth) that we're expected to believe that teachers are now so much better and students work so much harder. And I say that as an education professional, btw. I was in the last yeargroup to sit O'Levels, and to say that we were put out at the amazing results the next year round is an understatement!!!! - Of course, the GCSEs had to be seen to be a success. As an example, in my school year (appox 250 students, big school) 14 students got an A at O'Level French. The next year at GCSE it was 54......

However, it's not just a recent thing. A friend (even older than me! - In her early forties) was given old O'level papers as practice for A levels.......

scienceteacher Tue 07-Apr-09 16:28:34

I'm not familiar with CSEs, llama. I didn't do my schooling in England.

I think with the Foundation/Intermediate/Higher level GCSEs, you can cover a broad range of attainment. I believe that everyone knew how CSEs compared with O-levels. Was it Grade 1 = C? I think the GCSEs can accomplish whatever the CSE accomplished in this area.

jujumaman Tue 07-Apr-09 16:30:02

I've seen my mother's O and A level papers from late fifties, we did similar subjects.

They were way, way harder than the ones I took in the late eighties. So it's been a gradual thing

EffieGadsby Tue 07-Apr-09 16:30:15

There was a little science test on the Guardian last week, so you can see how you would do in a modern GCSE exam.

It makes it pretty tempting to retake all my GCSEs and get super grades. I got one wrong though (the polio question), so I suppose Id only get an A and not an A* (dammit). Still, it would be a marked improvement on the C I got when I actually took it.

scienceteacher Tue 07-Apr-09 16:35:13

I think grade inflation is quite a political thing. Think of the government's response every time the results are announced - they take credit for the 0.5% rise in pass marks.

It is always difficult to compare now with then. It is probably fair to say that top students now have an easier time than top students then, but I feel for those who got nothing out of the education system in the past. Both of my brothers left school with nothing! That is unlikely to happen nowadays.

What I see nowadays is that schools are rather exasperated about stretching their more able students, and recent threads on Mumsnet have shown that their DCs are sitting hugely complicated diets of exams - and I think this is simply to put some distance between them and more average learners. It must be immensely complicated for higher education institutes and employers who now try to make sense of the education system by simply giving their candidates their own internal exams - they have lost faith in the system.

TheFallenMadonna Tue 07-Apr-09 16:35:37

I think the trouble with GCSEs is that with all the focus on C and above, encouraging a child who will not achieve a C to improve from, say, an F to an E is tricky. We are investigating alternative courses for our lower ability students.

I think GCSE courses now are completely different to O level courses. It's like comparing apples and oranges.

stuffitllama Tue 07-Apr-09 16:36:57

Yes, Grade 1 = C

But it meant that you could get Grade 2 and still have something to show, instead of an O level fail. So everybody could get something but the system maintained the integrity of O levels I suppose.

I don't advocate it myself, I don't know enough about it tbh. Especially about how CSEs were regarded when it came to college and jobs. It's interesting to read what you think.

scienceteacher Tue 07-Apr-09 16:48:21

They can get a GCSE D, E, F and G grade, so the lower CSE grades would fit in there. If they are doing their best and that is what they get, so be it. It is so much better than A-C or nothing (which is what it was in Scotland when I did my exams).

League tables are a problem in that they pretty much make you focus on getting D students to C, and ignore everyone else. I even know of some students who have deliberately been entered for foundation papers to guarantee a C, rather than risking them on a Higher paper - even when it meant the student could not do the A-levels they wanted to. There is a lot of abuse like this and it is very sad for individual students. (Not at my school, I hasten to add).

I find now, with the modular system and UMS scores, that you can focus on individual papers for the student who is just short of any grade boundary to resit or have extra tuition. It is a very transparent system. Also, in the course that I teach, students can choose for themselves whether they are going to to foundation or higher papers on the day of their modules - they can mix and match according to their strenghts. It is a pleasant change for the harsh decision made early on in the GCSE course (or O-level vs CSE) in the past.

stuffitllama Tue 07-Apr-09 16:50:42

You have really seen some changes haven't you. It's a much more complex debate than it seems on the surface.

bagsforlife Tue 07-Apr-09 16:54:36

Absolutely. No question about it.

I took my GCSEs in 1975, the first year they changed it from 1 - 6 to A - E!! I did A levels in 1977. I went to a high achieving girls grammar school and not very many got 3 As at A level, even those going on to Oxbridge... sometimes an Oxbridge offer would be 3 Es at A level if they really wanted you. Inconceivable today.

It is relatively easy now for averagely bright students to get all A/A*s if they do the work. Plus the coursework element is open to cheating... I know several of my DCs contemporaries who have done their GF/BF's science coursework for them (no doubt a few parents have 'helped' too....).

However, having said that, it's not fair on the students of today either. Dumbing down helps no-one, the really, really bright ones I am sure could still get the top grade in the old 'O' levels if they were taught the syllabus, and the not v bright students who are getting Cs and above now in daft subjects are being given a false sense of achievement (eg those doing media studies who imagine it will be taken seriously by 'top' universities).

The private schools have got getting As down to a fine art, whilst just as bright children at crap comps are being done a disservice.

It's a disgrace (Old Fogey emoticon).

scienceteacher Tue 07-Apr-09 17:02:19

I think the crux of the matter for me, stuffit, is that today's students (my DCs and my lovely students) aren't to blame for the system. If they end up with a string of A*, we shouldn't take anything away from them - they have done the best that they can do within the system.

I always feel really bad for top performing students on results day when people start talking about what it was like back in the day.

I do get frustrated with the system sometimes - but I am also very pragmatic and I work with what I have - and my job is to get them to reach their potential, whatever that is.

I suppose the folks that I feel sorry for are those who achieved mediocre qualifications from 20 years ago (eg 3rd class honours students) who may be denied priviledged positions in their professions now, even though they could probably have breezed a 2ii or 2i nowadays (I don't know if this is a big problem though).

bagsforlife Tue 07-Apr-09 17:04:58

In the 'olden days' there were GCE O levels and CSEs. O levels were graded from A - U (unclassified). A - C were considered a pass, D,E,F,U a fail. Prior to that it was 1 - 6 or fail. The A - U was brought in so those with a D - U could show they had at least taken the course and come out with a grade of some kind. I think it was hoped the grades D and below would count as something but it was soon apparent that only C or above would be a 'pass'.

CSEs were for less able students, usually those who didn't pass the 11+ and graded 1 - 5. Grade 1 CSE was regarded as equivalent to an 0 level pass and accepted as so by universities etc and wasn't a bar to doing A levels or anything.

They then combined GCEs and CSEs to make the GCSE in the 80s I think. And, voila, you have the system we have now. smile

scienceteacher Tue 07-Apr-09 17:07:46

I would imagine that it is a positive to combine the GCE and CSE into GCSE, especially now when there is more flexibility to combine papers. It is always very tough to have a harsh boundary, as there are going to be students on both sides of this who suffer.

TheFallenMadonna Tue 07-Apr-09 17:10:21

But the CSE was a bar to doing A levels in my school. In the same way the a foundation grade C as opposed to a higher one is now. You just didn't know the same stuff. I went to a comprehensive, and only one person in all my A level classes had done CSEs, and she dropped out within a year.

Habbibu Tue 07-Apr-09 17:14:31

Don't know if it's changed now, but the boundary remained when I did GCSEs (first year) - essentially you could sit one or the other paper (seem to recall P&Q papers in biology) and if you sat one the highest you could get was a C. So the blending was artificial, in essence.

I did GCSE maths, and then went to a different 6th form to do A'level - they'd all done O and AO maths and the difference was staggering. I really floundered for a while, and though my A' level maths result was the worst of any result I've had, I'm still very proud of it as I had to work so hard to catch up.

I think your point about it being unfair on today's students is a very good one, scienceteacher - what are they supposed to do about it, after all?

Niecie Tue 07-Apr-09 17:20:10

I think they have dumbed down too. It was on the news the other week. A physics teacher said that they were not hard enough for the more able students and were not providing the science education that was necessary for higher level study.

He gave the example of the question 'Name two features of a wireless connection' (or something like that). He said he came up with half a dozen features which a GCSE student should be aware of and yet one of the possible answers was that it was wireless. Presumably another feature of a wireless connection would therefore be that it was a connection. hmm

I think those who say it does nobody any favours to continue to dumb down are right except that there are is a group that do benefit - the government who can point to another 'improvement' in results. Universities and business have noticed the dumbing down - I noticed it in the new graduates only 10 yrs after I graduated so I imagine it has only got worse, now that I am 20 yrs out of university <old fart emoticon>

As a matter of interest I got 7 out of 8 on that Guardian quiz which I find scary as I know nothing about physics (only did biology and chemistry). The one I got wrong was the 1st one which was worded in such a way that I was arguably as right as the answer they deemed correct. I always wondered if I could do physics O level as I thought it was too hard when I was at school. I have been tempted, over the years, to go and do it for 'fun' just to see if I could! Maybe, after that quiz I will!

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