Friday, 8 August 2008

Are we cleverer than we were?

Today I want to start by saying something with which, I think, everyone will agree. Some people are better at sports than others. We know this because we all witnessed it as children and have continued witnessing it ever since.

When a dozen boys gather at a park to play football the two captains make alternate picks until each side has six members and week after week the same boys are picked first and the same boys are picked last. There is nothing nasty about it. Everyone knows Jimmy is the best player so he is picked first, then Tom and so it goes on until only Ed and Charlie are left, and Charlie is almost always picked ahead of Ed. Occasional variants might arise by which Ed becomes first pick on his birthday or he is picked ahead of Charlie because one of the captains likes him more, but the overall pattern is always the same. And it is the same for the very obvious reason that the boys have different levels of skill.

Some would consider this exercise in team selection to be a divisive practice which humiliates Ed and Charlie week after week. It is nothing of the sort and we only need to ask Ed and Charlie to know this because, you see, Ed and Charlie know why they are picked last. They do not turn up at the park in order to be the best players, they turn up because they enjoy the game. They do not pass the ball to Jimmy or Tom because they do not want to dribble forward and score spectacular goals themselves, they do so because they know Jimmy and Tom can do it and they cannot. One of the great joys for Ed and Charlie comes when they have a particularly good game, when a tackle is executed perfectly or a long pass lands in the perfect spot, on those days they get more praise from their teammates than anyone else because all recognise a special achievement. They are not humiliated by being the two worst players, if they felt humiliated they would not turn up at all.

Sporting achievement is not all about basic physical coordination, that is obvious; technical skills are required as are physical fitness and concentration. However, no matter how fit you are, how much coaching you receive and how well you can concentrate, your level of physical coordination will determine how far you can go in your chosen sport.

Recognition that there are different levels of skill helps us to engage a lot of people in regular sporting activity. Take cricket clubs as an example. At the top level we have the England team, full of people with a standard of skill possessed by only one in tens of thousands. Then there are County Cricket Clubs comprising those who play for England and those who play extremely well but not well enough to play for their country. Next come the County Leagues from which some players will move up to play for a County but most will not. All these strata of the game involve players of very substantial skill. Within such a select group there are still discernible bands separating the very good from the exceptional from the brilliant. Not surprisingly, there are very few in the top band, more in the next and far more in the next again.

The level below County League standard is more difficult to define because the number of participants is much larger. There are many clubs like my own in which the best players in the First XI could hold their own in the County League but most could not. We run a number of teams on Saturdays and Sundays (as well as many junior teams). There are dedicated players of reasonable skill who only ever play in the Saturday Third XI or the Sunday Second XI because they would struggle at a higher level but, by playing against players at their own general level of skill, gain great enjoyment from the game.

What is probably not known very widely is that clubs at the lower levels of the game also make room for those who simply do not possess the level of basic physical skill to make a meaningful contribution in any match. They will not play often, perhaps just a couple of times each season, but if they are keen to play and are prepared to stand up and say they would like a game they will be accommodated. By organising cricket in a way that reflects different abilities we maximise the benefit for all those who want to play. Movement between the different levels is not only possible it is to the advantage of the higher ranking clubs, thereby allowing those who improve their game to achieve their potential. The same applies to football, rugby, hockey and the rest.

Exactly the same pattern arises when we look at academic ability rather than sporting skill. Some people are staggeringly clever, some are irredeemably thick and the vast majority are somewhere in between. We do not need any studies by governments or think tanks to establish this obvious fact because we have all witnessed it at every stage of our lives. We have also witnessed clever people who are lazy and average people who worked hard, each might gain the same grades at one level but at the next level the lazy clever person can cope and the hard working but not very clever person cannot. Everyone finds their level, but only if the standard of measurement recognises different abilities and says "you can go this far but no further".

The task of schools, so far as academic study is concerned, is to recognise the different abilities of the pupils and seek to get the best out of them. In the same way that physical coordination provides the absolute limit to what a sportsman can achieve, so what we usually refer to as intelligence sets a limit to academic achievement. Also, in the same way that good coaching, fitness training and enhanced concentration can improve sporting performance, so good teaching and motivation can enhance academic achievement. But to what extent, and how do we measure it?

There is a lot of rubbish spouted about exams. Formal written tests have their limitations but there has to be some measure of attainment, some way of letting others know what each pupil can do. Until a better method than exams is found, I will support them (yes, I know this is a self-fulfilling prophesy, but this is my blog so it is allowed.)

For generations we have had tests at age 16 ("O"-levels, now GCSEs) and tests at age 18 ("A"-levels). In recent years there has been a seemingly unstoppable upward movement in average grades awarded. More and more children at 16 are gaining passes at grades A-C in their GCSEs and more and more are gaining As at A-level. The government claims these figures show their education policies have increased standards in schools, their critics claim the exams have been made easier in order to manipulate the statistics so that the government can take credit.

It is obvious that easier exams will improve average grades but so will harder work and an improvement in teaching standards. The difference between making exams easier and improving teaching standards and greater industry is that the latter two factors can only do so much. The pupil of average intelligence who is taught badly might get a grade D whereas good teaching might result in a C and a combination of good teaching and very hard work might squeeze into the bottom of the B bracket, but that pupil should never be able to attain a grade A because his intellectual ability cannot cope with the more difficult aspects of the subject which must be understood in order to justify a top grade.

I find it difficult to accept that children work so much harder and are taught so much better than in times gone by that exam results should improve by several percentage points each year. To me it just does not make sense. Perhaps on average they do work a bit harder and they are taught a bit better, but my idea of common sense leads me to conclude that a modest increase in average grades would result from that and a plateau would be reached fairly quickly, not a year-on-year upward leap. I find myself forced to conclude that the standard of achievement required to secure each grade has been reduced.

This conclusion appears to be shared by some of the country's most distinguished Universities who feel unable to accept "A"-level grades at face value because they have experienced growing numbers of students with straight As who have been far below the standard of straight-A students a generation ago. Employers also complain that young people with high grades at GCSE are incapable of reading, writing and doing basic arithmetic.

The tragedy of grade-inflation is that it cheats everyone. It cheats the pupils because they are given a false impression of their ability when the truth would benefit them more in their future lives. It cheats employers who take on young people only to find they are not up to the job and have to let them go; thereby evidencing the need for young people to know the truth about their limitations. It cheats colleges who have to undertake remedial teaching to bring new charges up to the true entry-level for their course. It cheats true straight-A students who lose places at their university of choice because someone with pretend straight-As has been given a place (and so it goes down the scale with courses requiring AAB, ABB, BBB and so on). It cheats past generations who see their C grades now being awarded to the barely literate. Perhaps worst of all it cheats those at the bottom of the intellectual pile, those with no formal qualifications at all. They appear now to be deemed officially worthless.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Grade inflation here in the US is rampant at all levels. This may be seen by the fact that SAT scores continue in free fall year after year even as H.S..and College grade point averages increase. Currently at Harvard 60% of all grades are A- or better--which leads me to believe that an undergradiuate degree from Harvard is currently not worth the paper it's written on. A certificate of compleation from a reputable welding school has more academic heft
and rigor--at least one can be confident the welding graduate has a high probability of actually knowing something about the subject of his study.