London, Aug. 22: After years of complaints about the declining standards of high school exams, Britain has made them harder to pass.
The latest results for 18-year-olds, released last week, show the first drop in the passing rate in three decades. In a nation where education has been a political battleground between progressives and traditionalists, it’s an emphatic victory for the old school.
The A-level results, which determine university entrance, showed that 52.4 per cent earned the highest grades this year, down from 52.9 per cent in 2013.
Yesterday, the results for a different exam, called the GCSE, were released. The test is normally taken by 16-year-olds but younger students have been taking parts of it a year early, knowing they can repeat it if they do poorly.
However, because of a rule change discouraging early test-taking, fewer students took the test this year than last year, resulting in a small statistical rise in the percentage getting passing grades. But a smaller proportion got the very highest grades.
Critics have long derided falling educational standards, often blaming them on “trendy” teaching methods.
The revised (harder) tests cover England only.
Along with other western nations, the British government frets that its teenagers compete poorly with rivals in rising Asian nations, particularly in science and math.
Despite worries about the speed and scale of change, few dispute its need. In 2012, a parliamentary committee said confidence in exams had been undermined by criticism from universities and employers and by what it called “years of grade inflation”.
Internationally, Britain ranks near the middle. It came in 26th for math and 23rd for reading out of 65 nations and regions taking part in a 2012 study of 15-year-olds. Asian countries took the top slots in the tests.
In announcing the exam changes last year, Michael Gove, then secretary of state for education, said they were needed to help English students “compete with the best in the world”.
Academics say easier exams were the result of worries that too few students were pursuing higher education. In 1980, 14.9 per cent of secondary school graduates in England passed the college-level test in two or more subjects, and 12.7 per cent went on to universities.
But by 2011, 35.5 per cent of graduates had passed the A-level test in two or more subjects, and 35.9 per cent went on to pursue a higher education.
“There was a need to pass more students to have the basis for getting into university,” said Alan Smithers, an academic at Buckingham University. Politics also played a part. “The previous government said it would be judged by progress in education, so there was a vested interest in results going up and up,” Smithers said.
After the recent changes, he said, England should get results of more use to universities and employers “that ought to tell people apart more accurately”.