Why exam boards’ rejection of “dumbing down” is unconvincing

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

I’ve just returned from the annual A-level results conference, where the heads of England’s three major exam boards present the yearly grade statistics.

For the last three years, much of this has been taken up with an elaborate  and detailed attempt to take some of the heat out of the ritual dumbing down debate.

And I have to say that, despite having a great deal of respect for those running the exam boards, I find this exercise in explaining away what are in some cases valid criticisms of the system a tad unconvincing.

In what has now become a well-established pattern at these early-morning August get-togethers in Westminster, Dr Mike Cresswell, director general of the largest board, AQA, takes centre stage. He then presents detailed charts to show that, while results have indeed improved steadily over recent years, different regions of the country, and different types of school, have improved at different rates.

So, for example, while the proportion of A grades in London has risen by more than seven per cent since 2002, in the North East of England it has improved by less than four per cent.

Similarly, the proportion of A grades in the independent sector has risen over the same period by nearly 12 per cent. In state grammars, the rise was nine per cent; in state colleges, five per cent; in comprehensives, also five per cent; and in secondary moderns, two per cent.

Dr Cresswell’s argument is that, because different types of school and different areas of the country have progressed at different rates, any crude or “naive” arguments that improvements in results are a product of uniform dumbing down are dispelled. Since, by implication, if this were true, all parts of the country and all types of school would have progressed by a similar rate.

While the figures unveiled in this analysis are thought-provoking in their own right, I can’t see that they disprove any argument that there may be some underlying dumbing down, or slipping of standards, to use a less loaded term, going on.*

For, surely, the fact that different types of school and area of the country have varying rates of improvement does not negate the sense that some underlying trend is at play nationwide.

To use an analogy, if you looked at UK house price rises over the years leading up to the peak of the property market in 2007, you would undoubtedly see variations in the degree to which prices had risen in different parts of the country.

But this would not disprove the existence of background factors, apparent nationwide, that might help to explain part of that rise in prices in all areas of the country. An example could be, for example, the ready availability of mortgage credit, which had tended to inflate the market nationally.

Similarly, the fact that global warming might lead to differing increases in temperature in different areas of the planet would not, surely, be taken by scientists to disprove the overall tendency that the earth is warming up.

Or, to take Dr Cresswell’s argument to its logical conclusion, the only way we could ever provide convincing evidence of dumbing down would be if we could show that all parts of the country, and in all types of school (and, presumably, for all categories of student) had improved by a uniform rate in recent years.

I have had little statistical education beyond A-level maths, and Dr Cresswell’s knowledge of both statistics and the exam system is vast. It may be that I have not grasped the full ramifications of this explanation. But it does come across to me as a bit of a smokescreen in what is quite a complex debate.

* (For the record, I don’t subscribe to any notion that exam boards are rushing around crudely lowering grade boundaries to cut standards. But I do think that some complex processes are at work which might tend to make it easier for a student who has mastered the subject to a given level to get a better grade now than they would have got a few years back).

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