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Educational Standards

Written originally, 16th August 2001, but needs a little update in view of the furore created when someone tried to stop this happening in Wales recently!! 
Some people have interpretted this as an attack on teachers and students: I'd of said it is the reverse! 
Just talking about science here, dunno about much else.
A level pass marks, are and have always been, set after the results are all in to the board. So they basically say, "10,000/15,000 students got 85%, therefore lets set 85% as the A grade requirement." Of course, yes they'll refine that in some way. The board will look and say, "no I'm sorry, but this years students are just better than last years and it would be unfair to only let 10,000 have a grade A... so lets give one to 11,000 of them". It just so happens that they do this year on year.
So either: A. Students are getting brighter each year? or B. The examiners are making poor judgements?
Ah ha!! But there is a third alternative. and this is the one I mostly believe.
C. The education system has developed tricks to get better results from the same intellect of students?
What do I mean by "tricks"? Well, for example, basically, the technique is to teach the student a very limited amount of knowledge, tell them exactly what they're going to have to remember... and then test them real quick before they've forgotten.
Sound odd? Well its a bit more sophisticated and subtle than that, but it is the general idea. Divide everything into short modules, state specific learning objectives for each module (which is basically telling them what the questions are going to be) and then test them at the end of each module,not at the end of the course.
Other tricks. Short answers rather than essays, MCQ rather than short answers Etc., etc.,  Why do these improve marks?  Well people will tell you its because they can guess.  That's not really true.  If you blind guess a 5 option MCQ you get 20%, more or less the same as if you guess an essay answer (believe me I see many!).   The real difference is long answers require (a) a knowledge of the subject and (b) a knowledge of what the question is really looking for?  (b) is where many students fall down, but they don't have the same trouble with MCQ.
So are students getting worse? Often people assume they are:  Students these days don't know this historical date or that... but then they do know their PC from their Mac. ...they are dead good at looking thngs up on Google.   These are all skills which, to some degree, the older skills like memorizing dates of great British Military Victories or something!
Does it matter?  Bascially not, but if I were to make a criticism of todays students, its not about attitude or brain power or anything like that....
If you train students to "cram" for exams too avidly, it stands to reason they will become very good at this and less good at other stuff!
The main problem is for University entrance.  We get so many University applicants, it is difficult to choose "the best" (whatever that is).  Once upon a time, simply a glance at the O'level grades would tell you, but now the pass rates are so high that is not useful anymore.  They only way to distinguish between students is by interview.... and that takes so much time now applications are so high!!!

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