The five-decade challenge


Okay, a brief review of British education. Unlike North America, students across the country (countries, really) write standardized exams. These have been awarded a bunch of different names over the years (O-levels and A-levels versus various certificates), but the crux of the matter is that students typically write one set of exams (ordinary levels) at the end of grade 11 and have been doing so since the 1950s. Passing these exams is not typically considered preparation for university, which would generally require advanced levels.

Grading practices have been the subject of much controversy in the UK. Again, unlike on our side of the puddle, federal government has a much more direct role in education. If government suggests that, say, average grades should be a certain percentage, there are lots of incentives to try meet that target. One of the possible solutions is to make the tests easier. As evidence, many people point to the fact that the nationwide average has increased every year for the last twenty years.

Anyway, the Royal Society for Chemistry recently created a contest where high school teachers across the country would nominate their top chemistry students to write an exam comprised of quantitative questions taken from these standardized exams over the last fifty years. Drumroll, please.

Students did much better on recent questions than they did on older questions. About 15% of questions from the 1960s were answered correctly, compared to about 35 per cent of questions from this century.

Don’t pay attention to the fact that most of us aren’t that happy bringing home a 35 per cent. It was written online, so you can’t get part-marks for correct workings, and was very time-constrained. The point is the differential. Now, the curriculum has changed somewhat, certainly, but this speaks for itself. At least, I can’t figure out how to interpret it any differently than the degree of mathematics required is dropping.

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