Examining standards over time

Public examination results are used in a variety of ways and the ways in which they are used dictate the demands that society makes of them. Unfortunately, some of the uses to which British examination results are currently being put make unrealistic demands. Government, in particular, deems it necessary to measure the progress of ‘educational standards’ across decades in time and assumes that this can be achieved to some extent with reference to pass rates from public examinations: hence, it demands that precisely the same examining standards must be applied from one year to the next. Recently it has been suggested that this demand is not being met and, as a consequence, changes in pass rates may give us a misleading picture of changing ‘educational standards’. Unfortunately, this criticism is ill‐founded and misrepresents the nature of examining standards, which, if they are to be of any use at all, must be dynamic and relative to specific moments in time. Thus, the notion of ‘applying the same standard’ becomes more and more meaningless the further apart the comparison years. While, to some, this may seem shocking, the triviality of the conclusion is apparent when the following are borne in mind: (a) the attempt to measure ‘educational standards’ over time is not feasible anyway; (b) the primary selective function of examination results is not affected by the application of dynamic examining standards.

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