Are Exams Getting Easier? A Leaving Certificate Rant!

As a teacher, this has been the most successful year of my life - at least in terms of the exam success of my pupils (as was last year... and the year before that... and the year before that...). Indeed if we use overall exam performance as the arbiter of academic success then, each succeeding year, pupils all over the world must be working harder and harder, and must be getting increasingly more intelligent (perhaps it’s something in the water).

In the UK the A-Level pass rate rose in 2010 for the 18th year in a row, and overall GCSE results improved for the 23rd year running. In Ireland research by Martin O’Grady (of Tralee I.T.) compares Leaving Certificate grades in 1992 and 2006, and finds a very strong case for grade inflation. For each of the 24 comparable Higher Level subject exams there was an overall 55% increase in the percentage of A and B grades achieved in 2006 – compared with 1992. The level of A1s awarded overall increased by over 300% during the same period. The increases in achievement at Ordinary Level are even higher.

Not surprisingly the State Examinations Commission has suggested that grade increases may be due to more exam-oriented teaching and the introduction of more modern courses including project work – rather than ‘grade inflation’. To my mind however, there can be little doubt that the exams are getting easier; and I agree wholeheartedly with O’Grady’s lament that
"Faced with an examination system that encourages and rewards rote learning, the rational second-level student concentrates on such shallow learning in place of developing more analytical skills."
Whilst there is much talk of preparing the young people of Ireland for an active role in a future ‘knowledge economy’, our overly-rigid and proscribed curricula and our poorly worded and badly thought through examinations and marking schemes continually undermine the best efforts of pupils and teachers alike – even without the debilitating effects of continuous ‘dumbing down’ and grade inflation.

Perhaps though, amidst our bewailing and begrudging, we should also ask ourselves about the purpose of exams. Is the education system simply supposed to be an intellectual obstacle course designed to sort the chaff from the wheat? Even if that were the case, terminal examinations are a somewhat clumsy tool to use and, as Professor Roger Murphy of Nottingham University said at a recent seminar run by the Cambridge Assessment group of exam boards, “examination grades are only - and can only ever be - an approximate indication of student achievement”. In other words the same pupil sitting the same exam at different times could get different grades on each occasion - due to variations in grading/marking, the selection of questions set as pupils gamble on which areas to revise most thoroughly, and the plain fact that pupils will perform differently on different days.

Whilst the ranking of pupils might serve some purpose for universities and potential employers, a national education system should surely aspire to do more than that. Are we interesting, enthusing and truly ‘educating’ our children? Are we creating an informed citizenry, able to make rational and reasoned decisions about their own lives and matters of more general importance? Are we creating a confident, able and well adjusted body of people capable of ‘making a contribution’ and living fulfilled lives? Grade inflation needs to be recognised and accepted for the problem that it is, but we should also not be seduced into seeing exam difficulty as the ultimate arbiter of an education’s worth.


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