Web Analytics Trust People (once an Englishman in Philly): An A-Grade A-Level that everyone has is not one worth having

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

An A-Grade A-Level that everyone has is not one worth having

This article on the BBC website changed its approach to David Miliband's speech but there's still enough in there to baffle me.

'But Mr Miliband dismissed the "great education debate every August" as a pantomime rather than a discussion.
"When the facts say teaching standards are rising... when the facts show that the growth in pupils doing well comes from Middle England families, the only conclusion we can draw when commentators talk of 'dumbing down' is that they believe Middle England has neither the brains nor the talent to do well," said Mr Miliband.
"We stand for success based on worth not birth and we will not be distracted from building wider educational opportunities by those who see a danger in meritocracy." '

Well he's certainly right that it's a pantomime and not a discussion or debate, in large part because proponents of 'everyone's getting better because we choose to make the results that way' argument always seek to disingenuously represent any criticism. The problem with exam results is that they are inherently arbitrary, and that it is increasingly difficult to use A-Levels especially as a comparator from year-to-year as there has been so much government tinkering, because so many people get higher grades and because the setting and grading of exams is inherently arbitrary.

The problem with significantly more than 20% of students getting A-grades is not that people like me somehow want to retain A-grades for our friends and people from 'the right' social background, or that we want to close off education, or want to deny that one year group may be brighter than another, or even (necessarily) that the standard of teaching hasn't gone through the roof in recent years. No, the complaints are for the simple reason that the purpose of an exam is to differentiate between how well students know and can engage with the material they've been taught. They are used as such a tool for differentiation by universities, employers and teachers to find out who is better than others. This, however, is a concept that many struggle with.

The argument is in effect a whine from people unhappy with why everyone can't achieve the same from school and university. They don't like differentiation, or even discrimination on the grounds of ability, because it represents another form of unmanageable difference between people. Unfortunately for them, there is no escaping the human desire and need to measure himself against others. Just imagine how absurd it would if it were announced that in this year's Olympics the athletes (who probably, actually, put more commitment into their sport than many teenagers into study) were so much better trained than in previous years that to recognise this there would be 2 golds, 2 silvers and no bronzes. How absurd would we think that? The fact is, however, that an A-grade A-Level which everyone has is, unfortunately, an A-grade not worth having. No-one knows this more than those who are unlucky to be getting their results tomorrow at a time when their not inconsiderable achievements have been so run down.


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