Are A levels (still) dumbing down?
As if to make it very clear that the answer to that question was a resounding ‘no’, the QCA (The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) took out a full page advert in some of today’s papers. It congratulated all those students getting their results and quoted some of the questions they had had to answer.
The question that was read out on the morning news – from Psychology A level -- was “Describe and evaluate the contributions of the Psychodynamic Approach and the Cognitive Approach to society”. Cor, we were meant to think, that’s hard.
It was, of course, something of a hostage to fortune. For a start, it may look gob-smackingly arcane to you and me, but turn to the A level board’s specification for that paper (Unit 6) and it is exactly what the students should have prepared themselves for:
Students, it says clearly in the syllabus, should be able to distinguish “between approaches/perspectives in psychology, including . . . the psychodynamic approach, the cognitive approach and the physiological approach.”
So it wasn’t exactly a wild card.
Next, it was just one part of a 90 minute paper, which – bearing in mind the time taken reading the paper and making your choice of options – would be answered in something like 20 minutes, which hardly gives time for much intellectual nuance. And according to the examiners’ reports, also published today, it wasn’t even all that well done.
Here’s some of what they had to say:
“Both approaches should have been considered, but some candidates only focused on one of them, which limited the marks available. The question asked for contributions to society, therefore theoretical contributions were only appropriate if they led to practical outcomes, eg theory of psychoanalysis and therapeutic techniques. Many candidates gave large amounts of irrelevant detail in this essay, for example lengthy descriptions and evaluations of research studies to support applications, where only the identification and findings were needed.” And so on.
This isn’t of course exactly what is meant by dumbing down. And in fact the strictures of these examiners may point in the opposite direction. The problem is not whether the kids are working hard (of course they are – and probably very much harder than we used to). It’s the ‘tick-box’ element to the marking that is the killer, and the sense that there is a range of points which have to be included to get the top marks -- rather than the open-ended essay-style intellectual exploration. (Here are the 'boxes' for the Psychology question.)
I know of at least one A level examiner who has given up because he was forced to mark down candidates who wrote really intelligently about a subject but didn’t give the points that were demanded by his “marking criteria”.
When they get to university the hang-over of this is still horribly apparent. Students will press you to say what kind of class you think their essay would be given. If you respond “a 2.1”, their next question is likely to be, “So what have I left out that would get me a first”. As if getting a first was simply about fulfilling all the assessment criteria.
But tub-thumping about standards is a bit of a thoughtless response to all this. The sad thing is that the tick-box style of marking is an almost inevitable consequence of the very proper attempt to democratize A levels. It’s all very well thinking that the open ended intellectual essay style is what should be rewarded. But what do you do if you go to a school where they don’t know the rules for that genre? Isn’t it reasonable for you to expect to be told what you would need to do to get an A?
Perhaps even more pressing is the question of the examiners themselves. In the old days, when A levels were a minority option, you had a small group of experienced (and, no doubt, underpaid but devoted) examiners. You might trust them to make reasonably independent judgments about a kid’s essay (and, in any case, the numbers were small enough for them to be checked up on). Our recent mad fixation with formal assessment has more than quadrupled the numbers of examiners that are needed – the demand being such that in some subject trainee teachers are used to mark the most important tests in a child’s career. So, of course, we have to generate firm rules and fixed criteria, simply to train and police the examiners.
The real question isn’t whether we are dumbing down. It’s what on earth we think all this examining is for. If it’s for choosing the brightest, it’s a blunt, time-consuming and inefficient instrument indeed. But maybe that’s not its point – and we should be thinking of quite different ways to do that.