Azara Blog: School maths exams have allegedly been getting easier

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Date published: 2008/06/03

The BBC says:

School mathematics exams in England have become easier, shallower and less demanding, according to a think tank.

Analysis of public maths exam papers taken by 16-year-olds between 1951 and 2006 shows standards have declined markedly, the report for Reform argues.
The Reform report assesses how maths exam papers changed over time in terms of their content, difficulty, style and pass standard.

It concludes that between 1951, when O-levels were introduced, and 1970, standards remained constant with a strong focus on algebra, arithmetic and geometry.

A simplification trend began in the 1980s with an attempt to show mathematics in context, but the syllabus remained comparable to that of earlier years.

But there was a steep decline in standards from 1990 onwards, once GCSEs were introduced, it says.

The content became broader and shallower, with a more restricted and less demanding syllabus, it claims.

And the difficulty and demand of questions weakened along with their style, it claims, with candidates being required to follow a series of steps rather than work their own way through.

Calculators were also allowed in some papers and formulae sheets were included in papers.

Added to that, the percentage mark required for a grade C fell to about 20% in the higher tier GCSE in 2000 and 2006.

The report claims that the apparent rise in attainment over the 1990s and 2000s is "highly misleading".

It would be surprising if this was a situation unique to maths. And it is trivially obvious that the "apparent rise in attainment" across all subjects can only really be down to two factors: (1) the exams are easier, and (2) teachers (and schools) have been incentivised to get higher and higher exam grades for their students, so are teaching more and more to the exam and making sure that students will sit exams they are most likely to do better in. You would have to be pretty naive or politically motivated to think that the students of today are so much cleverer (or dumber) than the students of yesterday.

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