Forty Years On

By Ben Jones, Emma Armitage
Published 20 Apr 2016

Emma Armitage and Ben Jones dispel some of the myths that surround the evolution of standards, as historic A-level Computer Science papers come to light

AQA recently uncovered A-level Computer Science specifications and exam papers that date back to 1971 – a time when schools had to demonstrate that students had access to a computer before they were permitted to enter the exam. The discovery made national news and the BBC highlighted some of the changes between the historical and contemporary subject matter: while students in the 1970s had to tackle complex binary code, modern computers now handle most of the maths, which frees students to engage with creative programming.

Qualifications must keep pace with developments in the wider field; however, grade standards must also evolve to reflect these changes. If computing students in 2016 do not have to grapple with the challenging mathematics faced by students in 1971, does that mean standards have fallen? Not necessarily, because current students are required to master skills that their counterparts were not, such as app design.

How can we maintain the standard required of, for instance, a grade A, and what does that standard represent?

Some changes are due to the subject content slowly evolving over the lifetime of a specification. These can, in principle, be incorporated by examiners’ adapting the mark schemes to reward students for referencing new ideas and developments in the field. This type of incremental change is similar to the changing shape of a river: if you looked at the same river every day you wouldn’t notice how erosion is reshaping it, but if you visited it at the beginning and end of a decade the change would be more noticeable.

Other changes are larger and more abrupt, typically occurring in periods of curriculum reform, when new topics are introduced into a specification (and obsolete ones discarded) to reflect changes in subject content. Comparing scripts from pre- and post-specification change (and certainly across decades) would be like comparing apples and oranges. Awarding on the basis of a direct comparison of knowledge, understanding and skills would doubtless cause grade outcomes to plummet because current students would be being judged on things that are now obsolete. This would be both inappropriate and unfair.

Clearly there is no simple solution to this challenge – whether the changes to content are incremental or larger – but these questions are the subject of ongoing research within CERP; in both instances, the availability of increasingly sophisticated statistical advice ensures that the fairness, validity and defensibility of the awards is improved.

The story of A-level Computer Science stands as a salutary warning against making uninformed pronouncements about ‘dumbing down’. It is a truer reflection to say that standards have evolved rather than deteriorated or risen; a thought exemplified in Alan Bennett’s play, appropriately enough entitled, Forty Years On:

Parent: ‘Have you ever thought, headmaster, that your standards might perhaps be a little out of date?’

Headmaster: ‘Of course they’re out of date. Standards are always out of date. That is what makes them standards.’

Emma Armitage and Ben Jones


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