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It's easy exams, but not an easy life for students

PUBLISHED: 12:42 08 May 2012

A student taking an exam.

A student taking an exam.

You wouldn't need a handful of A-level results to predict that this year's exam pass rate will soar yet again, but you might to predict that the government itself would admit that GCSE and A-level exams have become "less demanding".

Ofqual said that changes made to tests over the last decade have “reduced the demand” of qualifications taken by hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren and that exams had been “stripped of core academic content”.

Most brilliantly of all, it revealed that in some science tests, multiple-choice questions were poorly written and even contained made-up words meaning that pupils were able to identify correct answers “through an elementary knowledge of English language.”

(Sample biology question: A fish has evolved many features to help it survive. Which part of a fish protects its body? A. Scales B. Britain’s Got Talent C. Awesomeness D. Lolcat).

A-level results have improved year-on-year for the past 30 years and show no signs of levelling out: teenagers will soon be so clever that they’ll begin passing exams they’ve not even taken. The pass rate will soar to 892 per cent.

Before the letters start flooding in to castigate me for belittling the success of hard-working students, I should point out that I’m perfectly aware there are lots of students who deserve their certificates.

But a 98 per cent pass rate? Multiple-choice questions which include made-up answers as options? Do me a favour.

I went to school with some card-carrying brain boxes, many of whom broke the Costessey High School mould and made it to Oxford or Cambridge at a time when you only went there if you were a member of the Royal family or had servants.

In my day, when there was only one kind of coffee, television stopped broadcasting at 9pm and we still thought the year 2000 would herald a new age of timeshare apartments on Venus, you had as much chance of being awarded three straight As at A-level as you did of inventing the internet.

Teenagers who did pull off a hat-trick were invariably social outcasts who had been denied access to anything that might distract them from study, like friends, a television, outdoors, the radio or newspapers.

Anyone normal with an A grade realised there had obviously been an advantageous typing error at the examination board and spent the next six months living in fear of the mistake being discovered and their grade being reclassified as a D. In research published this week, Ofqual said that the value of A-levels and GCSEs had been undermined by more than a decade of “persistent grade inflation” and “a gradual decline in standards”.

When I went to my nearly 14-year-old’s GCSE meeting a few months ago, I spoke to a science teacher about the changes in teaching methods which meant that when I was at school you chose to study either biology, physics or chemistry, but that today you choose a “module” and study all three. He then asked me what science O-levels I passed and what grades I’d been awarded before telling me that my certificates “were probably worth a B at A-level these days”.

If I could get a B at A-level in chemistry, then God help the chemical industry of tomorrow: you will be populated by people whose only chemical accomplishment involves eyebrow singeing with a bunsen burner and an ill-advised brush with LSD in a student bedsit.

(Remember what I said about genuinely talented students still deserving their grades. Put down the paper and pen, walk away from the green ink.)

And if simpler examinations aren’t enough, these days students can resit their first year A-level papers up to six times until they get the marks they need: it’s a far cry from the good old days when an entire two years’ study rested entirely on a couple of three-hour exams in a roasting PE hall smelling of unwashed boy and plimsolls. The irony is that these awesomely good results aren’t making life any easier for students – university places are at a premium, top universities have started imposing their own tests to determine intelligence and even employers have started questioning the validity of A-level results.

Back in my day, universities would have offered you a gold-plated student rail card to entice you into their seat of learning with three A grades at A-level.

These days, if you don’t get A grades you might as well reconcile yourself to a lifetime as a career criminal or toilet cleaner.

You may also have to come to terms with the fact that East Runton University College might turn you down for that History of Lady Gaga degree you were hoping to start in September.

Of course I could be completely mistaken, and it could be that teens today are actually far cleverer than I was when I was taking A-levels (this is a preposterous idea, naturally).

Then again, I’ve seen work experience students with A-level English at A grade and barely able to spell as well as my 11-year-old, so I remain unconvinced – although if the Oxford and Cambridge RSA Exam Board would like to reclassify my B grade at Classics to an A, I might stop whingeing.

In fact, let’s be done with it and just award me with a Doctorate.

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