As A-level results are officially published, media platforms have already prepared the ground for another round of grade inflation. Anxious to do the best for their students, teachers will inevitably ‘mark up’. So more young people will get higher grades and top universities (those that ‘select’ rather than ‘recruit’) will be under pressure to accept extra students – the government is even considering funding more medical places. At least, this is how the story goes.
In reality of the situation is rather different. If education was really about learning, increased levels of achievement would be welcome. Likewise, if exams were truly about assessing student progress they would reaffirm the professional judgement of their teachers. But this isn’t the case. In ‘credential’ societies the main function of assessment, particularly formal exams, is to rank students against each other; part of education’s more general role in selecting, allocating (on ‘merit’ of course! ) and dividing.
It is often forgotten that external exam grades are now based on the ‘comparative outcomes’ model introduced by Michael Gove, where unless it’s proved that a student cohort is more able, grade allocations will reflect the previous years. Gove blamed previous Labour governments for making exams ‘too easy’.
It is certainly the case that more students had been getting higher scores; but faced with declining employment opportunities and seeing exam success as providing the only chance of any prospects, even if the goalposts constantly change; young people are having to work much harder, just as their teachers have become much more skilled at helping them jump through the hoops. That’s why education is now like running up a downwards escalator, where you have to run faster and faster simply to stand still.
While rushing to congratulate young people on their grades, everybody from Tory MPs to the National Education Union now waits for the return of a ‘normal’ standardised and centralised exam system that squeezes out enough students from the high grades necessary to access elite universities that lead to (the diminishing supply of) ‘graduate jobs’. If it didn’t do this, then individual universities would simply set their own entrance exams. Some will anyway.
A different sort of assessment is both possible and certainly desirable, but it’s only going to be feasible if there are more opportunities and better ways to make the transition to adulthood. In the meantime, especially after what has happened to them during the pandemic, young people need all the grades they can get.