The Garrulous Jay – Degradation

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Are A levels, and exams more widely, fit for purpose in the 21st century? Thursday last week saw the publication of this year’s A level results. As had been widely expected, grades were down materially from 2022 as Ofqual sought to return them to pre-pandemic levels.

Partly as a result of this 20-30% of students failed to secure a place at their first choice University. Whether or not this represents a failure or a success of the A level system is unclear to me.

Arresting the pandemic era trend of grade inflation is, I think, a good thing. As any saver or investor should appreciate, inflation leads to the pernicious erosion of value, whether it be in exam grades or cash in the bank.

Universities have been guilty of this over the last few decades. In 2010/11 15.7% of students achieved a First class degree. In 2018/19 that figure was 29.5% (source: Office for Students).

Both University degree results and the recent A level results should lead us to ask the same question: what are these results for?

Part of the problem for A levels is there are two obvious answers which are not fully aligned. A levels are both a mechanism for matching students with places in higher education, and a way of signalling employability to potential employers. It feels like the skew is towards the former despite the fact that the majority of 18 year-olds do not go on to higher education.

Degree results are more obviously used by employers as part of their selection criteria, but I fear this has been corrupted by the grade inflation of recent years.

My concern is that universities have turned the grading system into an outsourced division of their Marketing Departments as they have sought to attract students, particularly from overseas, in a quest to secure funding. The greater the chance of obtaining a good degree, the more attractive the institution to potential students.

Within this employability context too, exams are a very blunt tool. Clearly academic attainment is important in some occupations, but beyond academia itself other skills are at least as valuable, if not more so.

Teamworking and presentation/communication skills can be critically important, but these are tested far less in many academic settings. And that’s to say nothing of the neurodiverse individuals, or simply kids who perform less well in an exam room, who can bring so much to so many workplaces.

The big lesson I draw from this is that employers and investors alike need to think carefully about how they judge performance, and the data they use to do this.

Context is everything and an exam grade or performance statistic tells a narrow and self-defined story.

Whether selecting an employee or an investment, one should look beyond the numbers to ask at least three questions:
•    Who produced the statistics?
•    How were they arrived at?
•    And what were their motivations?