Friday, September 28, 2007


More Balls on exams this week. He wants to set up an independent exam regulator in order to "put an end to the old and stale debate about exam standards". How refreshing.

So does he accept that exam standards have slumped, with A Levels now two whole grades easier than two decades ago (see this blog for the facts)?

Er... not exactly. He's more interested in snowing us punters into believing his version of events. He wants to "end young people being told that the GCSE or A-level grades they are proud of aren't worth what they used to be. I want parents, universities, employers and young people themselves to be confident that exam standards are being maintained."

Even though they're not (see here for the Economist's take).

So we're to have an "independent" regulator, independent in the sense that it will report to Parliament rather than the government. The same Parliament that is... er... three-line whipped by the patronage dispensing government (see here for an overview of the similarly "independent" National Audit Office).

As luck would have it, Tyler's Dad was recently sorting through some old papers (still trying to find the long-lost Tyler family fortune) when he came across Tyler's GCE O Level Maths paper from 1965. The front page is shown above.

So, pencils sharpened... Question 1.

Given that (x2 - 4) and (x3 + 3x2 + 3x + 2) have a common factor, factorise each expression into two factors.

Piece of cake.

Hmm... there used to be that formula with the square root sign. Didn't there? No, I'm sure there did.


Gah... didn't I used to be good at this?... no, really... boasting aside, I got a Grade 1... Grade 1... hmmmmm... the Major's Albanian claret has clearly washed away even more billions of brain cells than I feared...

OK, let's come back to Question 1.

Question 2... mmm..... yes... trigonometry. That's it- Sin, Cos, Tan... or... wait... maybe they're varieties of Taste the Difference lettuce...

What were those formulae?


Maybe we'll come back to that one too.

Now contrast that with today's Maths GCSE exam. Tyler would have no problem doing that- even at the higher tier (ie the harder paper for candidates predicted an A orB grade)- because they give you the formulae to refer to in the exam. Factorising quadratic equations? Easy. All those trig formulae? No problem.

I know what you're thinking- that doesn't prove dumbing down because surely exams should be about more than memorising formulae. And you do have a point, even if I think memorising key formulae should be part of the course.

But just take a gander at some recent GCSE Higher Tier Maths questions (eg see here):
  1. Change the decimal 0.45 to a fraction in its lowest terms

  2. Express 72 and 96 as products of their prime factors

  3. Use your answer to 2 to work out the highest common factor of 72 and 96

Those three questions together are worth 5%. Sure, you probably need to have done the course, but I'm sorry, no way is such hand-holding bite-sized arithmetic equivalent to the paper from 1965. IIRC it's closer to the 11+.

Wonder how you get a job on the Balls Commission.

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